“What is man without the beasts If all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected.” -Chief Seattle
A few years ago I decided to go on a road-trip along the Península de Nicoya in Guanacaste, Costa Rica. Guanacaste has a lot to offer and costaricans are lucky to celebrate the annexation of this vast land of natural wonders, which before 1824 was most of it part of Nicaragua.
Beyond the hundreds of beautiful places that Guancaste’s shoreline offers I was focused on exploring some of the Islands, but I wasn’t aware of the existence of the “Bat Islands” when I started the trip. This Quest really starts off North of the the Península after a week of driving, visiting villages, beaches and sailing in small boats to different islands.
Costa Rica doesn’t really have weather seasons, we have wet and dry season. During dry season Guanacaste turns into a very tough country, but during this time of the year, the natural display of colors in its landscapes are amazing. This is a story of wild nature put into contrast against its magnificent beauty.
I’m driving north and for about half an hour you go through a dry tropical forest that looks like a haunted desert filled with impenetrable creepers and trees that look like climbing plants right from a knight’s tale. How is nature capable of creating this brute living landscape? Hostile and fearless; they protect the many other plant and animal species that live around the sweeping protected area that comprehends the Santa Rosa National Park. Just driving out of this road, I wanted to stop by on a small village to have lunch, but suddenly an unexpected sand storm hit me from a side, I didn’t want to brake, because I wasn’t sure if a car might hit me from behind, so slowly I drove through this gust of dust as it was getting thicker and heavier, until I came out fine through the other side, it was kind of exhilarating!
I drove out to a small fishermen village and found a small place by an estuary; decent food, great ceviche! I was finishing my meal while looking at one of the frames that hanged on the wall in front of me. I saw a map, intrigued by it, the map didn’t seem to be of Costa Rica, so I went closer to take a good look and to my surprise it was a close up of Santa Rosa’s National Park and its shore. I noticed some islands, an archipelago called “Islas Murciélago” (Bat Islands). Interested by it’s name I asked the friendly waiter if she knew how to get there.
“Sure! My uncle is sailing there tomorrow to carry some supplies for the park rangers”
Kindly I told her to contact him and ask him if I could come along.
When the waiter brought back my bill, I payed for the lunch and I stared at her excited to hear what her uncle had said.
“He’ll pick you up here at 7am. I’ll have some breakfast ready for you and fried fish for take away.”
I woke up early to try and find a place to buy some fruits, maybe a sandwich, drinks and water to take on the boat ride, even though I was counting on the take away fried fish to have lunch on the island. After an encounter with cattle in the middle of the road for some long minutes I was able to buy some of the stuff I planned and sharply I managed to arrive to the meeting point with the waiter’s Uncle.
The Captain and I loaded the boat with the supplies he was carrying to the Park Rangers, I took my camelback and a couple of small coolers with some fruits, drinks and the fried fish. Once out of the bay, time seemed to go by very slow as the motor boat had just enough power horses to sail the heavy swell, but we did fine, it just took a bit more time than estimated even though it was already a long way to the Islands.
The sun light painted the sea with a deep blue color and the areas with less swell, reflected a royal resplendent blue. Getting closer to the Bat Archipelago felt like entering Jurassic Park, a different World, almost as if it was an unexplored land of beauty.
“There's magic in the water that attracts all men...” - Brann Dailor
We tied the boat transversely to a sign that read “Isla San José”, the main Island out of five or six other islands that make up the Bat Archipelago.
White soft sand spreads across the shore we docked in and a grassy low mountain range protects the opposite side of this small slice of paradise. The shallow cold water underneath the boat was crystal clear; actually the Captain told me the water visibility is usually 30 to 100 feet (10 to 30 meters), but that specific day the offshore wind was quite strong.
The Captain showed me the way to a spot where I could leave my things and have lunch, then he went to the Park Ranger’s shelter to deliver the supplies. I was trying to eat my fried fish, but the view from every spot on the Island was amazing, so before finishing my fried fish I decided to take some pictures around from where I was eating and in just a few seconds I was surrounded by maybe more than a dozen iguanas lurking around my fried fish.
The beauty of the Island’s surroundings was majestic and the lonely resonance of the small waves reaching the warm sand gave the environment a sense of serenity that somehow made me feel overwhelmed by the grandness of all that nature concentrated in a small piece of land. It makes you feel small and vulnerable.
I was thinking about how the defoliated trees around me looked like dried rivers of arms reaching towards the blue sky when suddenly the silence broke with the Captain’s voice.
“Im afraid we won’t be able to go back to mainland today. The winds are getting stronger and the waves are bigger, my boat will crack in two if we try it. But don’t worry I have a camping tent you can use.”
As the sun went down I thought, well thats ok, I don’t have to get back to mainland any soon now. It’ll be cool to explore more of the Islands tomorrow.
I set up the small tent, which had a couple of broken poles, the rooftop wasn’t high enough to hold steady the tent, but once laying down it didn’t actually matter that much.
The night creeped through the dried tree branches giving way to very strong winds. It was pitch black and I could only hear the winds trying to tear my tent to the ground. With little sleep, a few hours after midnight I sensed a light approaching my camp site, I went out to try and find the source and it was the Captain with incredible news.
"There are some sea turtles entering the shore to lay their eggs! Let’s go see them!”
It was a sleepless night, but a very splendid one. We managed to see 3 huge sea turtles slowly crawling towards the dark beach. With a red filtered flashlight we managed to watch the spectacle, all the way until every turtle found their spot to lay their eggs. The Captain explained to me that this Archipelago is a hot spot for millions of sea turtles and part of the ranger’s work is to protect them and mark the spots where they nest.
“Tomorrow you will be able to see some of the past laid eggs hatching”
I went back to my crippled hut and try to have some sleep.
Very early in the morning I had some leftover fruits for breakfast and met up with the Captain at the beach, ready to go find sea turtle eggs.
There were lots of marked spots, each with thermometers and labels with dates, so we started digging through the ones that should be ready to hatch. Deep enough, lots of egg shells and tiny small turtles started to appear and carefully The Captain and one of the Rangers placed the turtles out of the hole to be aided out of their shells.
As quick as life is brought to light, Death starts to roam around darkness.
Some of the small creatures are born dead and some eggs didn’t finished completely their stage. This is common and nature knows no waste. Immediately hundreds of hermit crabs surface the golden sands were the dead are laying, they start feasting. Iguanas skulk from behind fallen trees and wait for the right moment to hunt the tiny turtles that clumsily crawl towards the fresh water currents. Birds startle some of them from the sky.
Isn’t nature just miraculous? Everything is interconnected.
Few of the small turtles make it, as they have other predators at sea. But the most incredible part is that those that make it to adulthood, come back hundreds and occasionally thousands of miles back to where they were born and the cycle repeats. It’s an amazing event to witness. It’s hard to imagine these tiny beings will grow up to be the huge strong reptiles we saw at night.
Once we “freed” the rest of the marked spots, we go back to the Ranger’s shelter to check the currents and winds. Bad luck, we are still trapped in the island, heavy winds are expected and strong currents against our course, but also we don’t have any food and my water ration is low. Not to worry, let’s wait and see if the situation gets better.
I then decide to hike around the soft hills that surrounds the Island in a horseshoe like manner. The views are just breath taking, I have never seen landscapes like this in Costa Rica.
I stay up there as much as I can. I don’t want to leave and maybe it was a good thing that we couldn’t leave the Island yet.
The Captain needed to leave, plus we didn’t have anything else to eat. So he talked to me and told me that we must try to make it back under the bad weather conditions, he’ve done it before, it’s not a fun trip, but I trust him.
Fascination with a mountain put to sea, built to slay and conquer all with teeth of beasts. -Brann Dailor
We committed ourselves to it and it was a terrifying long trip. Uninhabited rocky landforms shape-shifting into Beasts. Skerries with minimal vegetation, big enough to be a sea monster threatening us by lashing the water into a sea of waves. The beautiful landscape we had gone through before became a wild hazard, a threat from nature.
It took us almost twice the time to get back, attacked by what felt like huge waves under us. I was holding on to my life, trying no to fell off the boat, while the boat slants trying to surf the tidal waves. At some point I thought it will never end, my arms were getting tired of holding to the straps that kept me inside the boat, but I lingered as much as I could. Finally, after what felt like hours, we entered the estuary from where we had set sail.
I was covered in a white thick powder; sea salt, dried by the blasting heat of the sun. I had a couple of beers at the restaurant to relax my tense muscles. I thanked the Captain for everything and took off to finish the road-trip. Later that night I will feel a heatstroke and a heavy sun burn that left the life jacket imprint on my body for over a month!
I will never forget this trip, but I certainly will never forget the power of nature and how something so beautiful can be so wild and formidable.
Story & Photos by Juancho Otalvaro
“...the fear of solitude is at root a fear of oneself...”
Sometimes I like to just drive in oblivion; nothing on my mind but the road while listening to my favorite tunes. It feels like escaping from everything. Will I ever go back? Do I really want to go back? I could make a whole new life anywhere where the road leads me; stopping whenever and wherever you like, no strings attached. This is how you best get to know places you will never think of planning, but even better, you get to know yourself. That’s how I ended up in Cabuya.
Getting to Isla Cabuya is quite a ride. After taking a ferry, you drive through small touristy beach towns, which if you live in Costa Rica are really famous for their nice beaches, tourist traps and party paradises, so I was wondering if Cabuya would be similar, but as the road became rougher and tougher, I knew I was on the right track to finding a gem of a land. As I got further away, the road was rocky with sandy paved reefs that allowed cars drive by. Small bridges with huge rocks that have fallen from the side hills made the road seem hard, but with patience and a bit of positivity, any car can go through (I was driving in the rainy season). The driver's side-view was amazing! The road takes you through a rain forest jungle right by the shore line, the sea is always by your side.
I like being alone, it's relaxing and you really can get your head clear. I read that solitude can forge our character, away from the demand of others, maintaining our independence. I think this is very important and healthy, it's somehow a way to stay sane and it avoids losing our identity to what others might "cultivate in you".
For any outsider of Costa Rica and even for most costaricans getting to Cabuya is a Green Paradise, not virgin, but enough to be overwhelmed by its beauty. Because I was there in rainy season, most of the restaurants and "sodas" , bars and hotels were closed. The welcoming small town is very simple, it has a few coffee shops, a bakery, a main bar and a few beach front hotels, all looking very old and neglected. The town is covered by 2 or 3 main roads, one that leads the way in and out of town, the other takes you to the Cabo Blanco National Park and one that leads you to where all the fishermen gather to set sail.
“it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be one more reason for us to do it.” - Rainer Maria Rilke
I arrived to Cabuya early, so the first thing I did (holding my crave to visit the cemetery Island) was to find a room or somewhere to get settled. As it was low season, most of the few hotels around were closed, but lucky me, there was an Irish guy with a nice small place that lodges several cabins. The place was pretty decent, a nice clean swimming pool; the cabins each had its own kitchen, bathroom, hammock, parking lot and a small meeting point that appeared to be a bar. The great thing about this place was that its beach front had a view towards the Mysterious Cemetery Island. Strange enough, inside the hotel's property there was a small Irish cross that marked a burial - though I didn’t ask about it, as it might come too personal to the Irish owner.
Cabuya's beach isn’t much of a typical beach that you would expect. It is rocky and the sand is filled with small shells that give a harsh texture to your bare feet. It's almost entirely like that throughout its shoreline, but there are nice "tide pools" where people usually seem to hang out.
I’m not a beach person at all, but I was intrigued by the secrets and history of the Island. As soon as I settled in the cabin, I asked for directions and they told me to just walk along the shore towards the Island and so I did. The tide was already high when I started, but the distance didn’t seem much, so I kept on walking through reefs and wet sand. The sun was hidden between what almost looked as rainy clouds, so it wasn’t that hot, but still the high humidity made it hard. There was absolutely nothing on the shore, no houses, no hotels, restaurants or any other amenity, just me and the sound of the crashing waves as they haunted me with the rising tide.
To my surprise I heard some rattling noises near some trees; two giant vultures lurking on a fallen tree, I think it was a mother and its chick. After I took some pictures of them I just stared at them and tried to understand what they were doing. I kept on walking and what I saw was just weird, at first I couldn’t identify what it was, or maybe my brain didn’t manage to relate it to something that should be on the shore. A cow's (or maybe bull's) half chopped or eaten leg - I felt as if I was in the middle of no mans land where animals were kings.
Further on the way, the tide was closing every chance to go back, but then again the animal kingdom drove my attention to a family of monkeys swinging just beside me. The experience got magical as they stared back at me as an unknown visitor, it felt as if I was their first human sight. I tried to play friendly but sadly I just scared them away.
Take a closer look.
The whole shore was a closed path with an impenetrable jungle, I forgot to eat something before I left and I was getting hungry, luckily I had enough water.
I realized that I was getting into National Park territory and the beach was disappearing just in front of a huge mass of greenery landscape covering everything on its way right into the sea as far as the eye can see.
I soon managed to find a way where some fishermen where getting ready to set sail and from here there was a road that connected back to town. But I stayed there and watch the sunset while the fishermen were getting ready under a colorful sky-background that the sun provided as it went down to dawn.
Cabuya is a small fishing town on the Nicoya Peninsula. Its Island is just off the coast and what makes it so magical is that you can actually walk to the island on low tide. What gives its mystery is that the Island is a cemetery that dates back to pre-Columbian times. According to the owner of the Cabins where I was staying, it was a sacred place for spirits, guarded and managed by a shaman. Later on, people that started to settle here kept the tradition of using it as a cemetery.
While staring at the dawn and making a time-lapse, a curious fisherman came to me and ask what I was doing. We started talking about the Island and dark humoring me, he told me;
“If you stay long enough and the town likes you, we might make room for you at the cemetery”
The haunted rumors of ghosts in the Island were roaming around and the colorful sunset captured its magic in the air. The picture above shows a frame of the time-lapse I took. From a cloudy dark sunset, all of the sudden the sky cracked open and shoot a beam of light right to the Island, while a whirlwind of purple hazy clouds rotated over the cemetery. What an amazing sight! I couldn’t wait to walk over and explore the Island.
Later that day, I went out to the beach at midnight to try and capture a starry night. But the moon was almost full and the clouds seemed to cover the sky like a blanket. I stood there for a while and from time to time looking through my camera’s viewfinder I would feel like seeing those hallucinations that give shapes to the void. I guess that was all part of the games the brain plays on you when you are in the dark, or maybe the excitement of being near a place that holds many stories throughout its history.
Midnight beach sky
Because the tide was high until mid-day, I woke up late. The day was sunny, almost no clouds in the sky. I took a dive in the hotel’s pool to cool down the heat, then I geared up my cameras and poured some water into my camelback from the kitchen’s tap water. This time I drove my car to the spot where I last saw the fishermen and started walking towards the Island through the reef cleared by the low tide.
I didn’t wait long enough for the tide to go down, parts of the crossing was still covered in water, but shallow enough to go through. Walking from one land to another was kind of exciting, but the arrival was even more thrilling. When you get to see the Cemetery’s entrance arch, it feels like discovering ancient ruins and you perceive that you are now part of that mystical piece of land that centuries ago belonged to spirits and legends.
As I got closer to the entrance, two vultures flew and stood on the arch and the palm tree behind it.
The spiny agave plants that encloses the whole island and the literally dead silence inside, created an atmosphere of enigma and your whole body knows that something is out challenging you; you are in awe.
Once you’re inside and you get acquainted with what you’re dealing with, you get used to being in a cemetery, though, what makes it more exhilarating is that you’re not inside a standard cemetery, you are in a burial ground surrounded by reef and water.
The day was so nice and it made such a contrast that it actually looked like a really nice place to spend the afterlife. I quickly understood why it was a sacred place and why it was kept that way until today. The entire island is preserved clean and well maintained; which is a sign of respect that honors those earthlings that have departed to a better place.
Huge palm trees protect the skies above, dancing, waving goodbye. The reef shields the land from the menacing waves that bulge with the tides, to preserve intact the remains of long gone memories. Finally but not last, the agave and bromelia enclosure inoculates the bad spirits and any other unwanted entities that might threaten any disturbance.
After experiencing the enchantment of the Island I walked its perimeter to find a small little beach with white soft sand, then continuing back to the main entrance where one of the vultures looked as if he was waiting for me, until he lifted off and so did I, I went back to mainland.
Story & Photos by Juancho Otalvaro
Preserving magic in the wetlands of Sierpe. A hypnotic attraction drawn by a weird first encounter left me wanting more. My curiosity about this ghost-like town was aroused.
Sierpe, "the pearl of the south" is the gateway to the marvelous Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica. While the main attraction in Osa is the Corcovado National Park, known for its virgin green beauty, there are many other villages and towns that are worth visiting for their charismatic inhabitants, which mostly keep their original roots intact to the classical Costa Rican culture and traditions.
Like many small towns around the World, the town of Sierpe has a dark past, one which has built a mysterious air, breathable since you enter its main road, filled with labyrinths of palm trees on both sides of the now renewed thruway. Getting to Sierpe takes a few long hours of driving, but believe me, it's a road trip filled with spectacular landscapes and small "sodas" (small typical restaurants) that serve many lost Costa Rican culinary recipes and ingredients. One of my favorites: cashew juice, a forgotten sandy taste I long remember from when I was a kid.
My first encounter with Sierpe was a weird one. Like many visitors, I was just passing by and using it as a hub to another destination, so I wasn't really aware of its secret beauty. I got there late at night and I found a small hotel by the Sierpe River where I´d spend the night and continue my trip the next morning.
I woke up early, packed my stuff inside my car which was parked outside the hotel, drove a couple of streets, and took a "lanchón" (a very small ferry) to cross the river to a road that would take me to the very south of the Peninsula; though I wasn't aware that I needed a four-wheel drive to get through that dirt road, so I had to go back to Sierpe. It was already past mid-day so I decided to grab some lunch and as soon as I got out of the car a "Güachiman" (Guys who watch your car on the street for some spare change) told me:
"Oh man, you're under a love spell!"
I didn't get what he was saying, so I asked him what it was and he replied;
"Yeah man, you are under a love spell, look at your car's exhaust pipe, it's filled with hair! That means someone has you under a love spell"
I thought he was making fun of me, but I checked and it was filled with synthetic blonde hair! I tried to pull it out just to find out, it was meters and meters long. I asked for a garbage bag at the restaurant and I actually filled two large garbage bags with the hair I pulled out. I couldn't believe it. I was feeling a bit nervous about staying any longer in Sierpe, so I had lunch and continued my trip through another way out of town.
Years later, my curiosity about Sierpe was aroused and I decided to take another trip to finally learn what had happened that day with the "hairy love spell".
The history of Sierpe is visually explained through its only road, which holds architectural treasures from early Costa Rica. Small colorful houses around football fields take you back in time to the occupation by the banana companies. The houses aren't painted colorful because of their cheerful look; instead, they each had different colors to label the families living inside and these colors dictated their job hierarchy inside the banana plantations.
The same night sky enlightened by millions of stars when there was no electricity, was shared with indigenous communities a long time before the banana companies pushed them out of the lands they had protected for so many years; leaving behind sacred looted indigenous cemeteries and giant stone spheres, which are believed are part of a huge land astronomical map of the cosmos; most of them were relocated into private homes for decoration.
Sierpe feels like an inhabited ghost town, you never really see people on the few streets of the small town, but if you stop by really early in the morning or in the evening, you'll get a busy sight of tourists from all over the world waiting for Boat-Taxis at the main dock, from where they will be transported to different other small towns around the south Pacific coast. After they're gone, the various myths and speculations of how Sierpe was founded continue to roam the empty streets.
On my arrival, I decided to book some tours and get a closer look at what Sierpe had to offer. There's a lot to do and many tours to choose from, but the problem I noticed was that most of them are out of Sierpe, meaning that many tourists never stay more than one night and because of this, there is no "need" for improving the infrastructure or having more entertainment for visitors besides the one bar and two restaurants the town has. For me, this is perfect! The development will kill the authenticity of the village, transforming it into a "theme park" experience that is not real.
I set sail from the river dock, gliding smoothly at full throttle through the meandering Three-Headed Snake; this is how some locals call "Sierpe River" and that's the name the indigenous communities had for it. "Three-headed", because it has three main river mouths and that's where I was heading to, open waters.
The majestic, different shades of green on the wetlands and the tall mangrove trees along the river create a hypnotic attraction where at points the horizon is lost by the sky's reflection on the river. Colorful birds from different species aid engineer this huge ecosystem, but sadly there is an invasion going on; our own human ecosystem is slowly killing this natural environment. Rice, banana, and palm plantations are a huge problem, as they are fumigated by air, poisoning not only the air Sierpe breathes but also when there are floods, all the chemicals end up in the river, killing many of the species, mainly fish. Pineapple is one of the worst and most polluting, luckily the town managed to rise up against this industry and, for now, they are safe from having this "pest". But one of the most silent aggressors is another of their strong pillars on their economy, boats, and tourism. The constant waves the boats create are sweeping away the banks of the river, pushing them away, each time further and further from each other. The Captain of the boat told me he remembered when he was a kid, sailing without an engine and he clearly recalls that the width of the river was so small that some of the treetops touched each other from bank to bank.
As sad and ironic as it may sound, their only income is killing the land from where they profit, but isn't that the same problem all over the world?
There should always be hope! It's surprisingly amazing how clever nature is and how it tries to protect itself from all these harms. All along the river, there are some plants called "Jacintas" an aquatic species that "cleans" the water from chemicals and unwanted nutrients; beneath them, a small food buffet is born for smaller fish and shrimps that bring back to life part of the damage.
The Jacintas die as they become closer to the salty waters where the mouth of the River meets the ocean, but a whole new ecosystem is out there. After crossing the heavy swell of the Ocean and long minutes of dizziness the Captain stops...
Look!! Over there...
I slowly stood up trying to focus on my eyes at the bright exterior. A Humpback female whale and its newborn; swimming, teaching its calf how to breathe over the surface, what a sight! Especially after being taught that the mothers come all the way from the south of Argentina to give birth in our warm waters and feed their babies until they become fat enough to endure the cold waters of their original habitat.
We continued our quest further into open waters until we arrived at "Caño Island". This beautiful secluded land is surrounded by white sand beaches and strange rocky formations that used to protect an ancient burial ground for high-ranked indigenous shamans. The hill that goes up this cemetery is off-limits and guarded by Park Rangers, as years ago it was ravaged by "Huaqueros" who plundered the graveyard looking for gold and other archaeological valuable artifacts. I tried to sneak in, but on my way up, hiking a rocky hill that leads to the place, I found myself enclosed by a couple of snakes on different occasions. The ranger saw me and kindly warned me that I shouldn’t walk alone on the Island, as there might be some dangers up the hill, especially snakes; even though they are not poisonous, they can do some serious harm. So I decided to stay safe and walked around the soft sand beach where the natural architecture seemed still untouched by man. I found some hidden spots with an array of textures and colors that left me astonished by its impossible structures, all created by different organisms living here. The heat was wearing me out, so I decided to lie down and enjoy the cold sand beneath some palm trees.
About an hour later, the captain came back with the boat and we met a seafarer that was taking a break at the park ranger's cabin and was telling eerie stories in between jokes about an Island called "Violines". This island is part of the Sierpe meandering river that mouthes to one of the snake's head. The captain told me we could grab lunch there, where a recluse solitary man called "Don Manuel" lives in a cabin. While sharing some sandwiches and rice with vegetables, he told me how he has walked all over the Island, and again, stories about indigenous tribes came into the conversation. He recalls hearing about tribal ceremonial processions from all over Costa Rica going down to the Island until gold looters found a 2.5 kg rock of gold - or at least that was the amount they reported - when taken to the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum in San José. "Violines" became a paradise for gold panners, until they luckily were stopped by the Government when the area became a national park to protect its natural environment, part of Sierpe's wetland biodiversity.
The trip was an uninterrupted, panoramic natural delight, filled with unimaginable tales of the history confining Sierpe, but still, I didn’t get any clues to where my so-called "love spell" came from.
Later that night, I met a friendly ex-pat, who calls Sierpe "A sunny place for shady people".... I found the name very amusing, but especially intriguing; though I soon forgot about it after sharing some laughs and great conversations. He introduced me to many locals at different places and I soon noticed that Sierpe, though small, had a wide variety of characters, all known by funny and sometimes scary nicknames. Some of their stories were sad and others even tragic, but they seemed to get along through life with a big smile and strong friendly handshakes that made me feel welcomed with respect. I was already feeling almost like a local; the Serpent had embraced me and now It was calling out my name to go and meet its deepest bowels. I was ready for it!
I woke up early in the morning by a distinctive mist that rumbled through the humid jungle next to the river canal where I was staying. The harsh sun rays trying to penetrate the hazy scenery gave a gloomy, dreamy effect that made my cabin felt cosy and homely. The mood and atmosphere were set for one last glance at the "Snake" before I went home.
I arrived at the river docks and tried to find a captain that would take me to an experience he hadn't yet taken anyone before. I found Captain Steven and convinced him to take me out looking for "piangüas".
"Piangüar" was a term I heard from some fishermen earlier on the trip and it's another of Sierpe's economic pillars that consists of going out looking for some type of mollusk that lives deep underground in the mud, clamped to the mangrove tree roots. Captain Steven said,
"Are you sure?!" This is not an easy task. You will get lacerated by mangrove thorns and get bitten by thousands of midges in a muddy environment that will cover you from toes to hips."
Without giving it any thought, we sailed 35 minutes on low tide through the mangroves. We spotted a small boat at one of the small canals that go deeper into the mangroves; "probably he is also looking for piangüas, let's see if we can meet him." We secured the boat to the shore, tied up to a mangrove tree. As I descended to the muddy bank I was swallowed to the knees inside the swamp, at first I got a bit nervous and almost regretting my decision, but Steven was already deep in and I somehow felt safer, so I struggled to keep up my pace, avoiding the millions of towering roots around and above me, looking at hundreds of "tiger crabs" peeking my disturbance around their tiny holes in the mud.
I was doing it! Walking down in my hips through the sludge, sticking my hand deeper, caressing the underground roots, and trying to find piangüas. Not an easy job, all I was thinking was that the Piangüeros receive less than $0.1 per mollusk and they catch maybe between 100 or even 300 in a good day, by the end of our run we caught 15, the right amount for one piangüa ceviche serving.
Captain Steven at some points did some "monkey howls" to see if someone will reply back and finally we came across a "Piangüero", covered in gasoline and coconut oil to repel the midge mosquitoes, that all of the sudden I realized they were swarming and biting into my arms. The Piangüero couldn't lose any time talking to us, as he only has 3 hours a day to pick up as many mollusks as he can; so he briefly explained to me about the gasoline/coconut oil brew and that they get compensated by an association when there are red-tides that poisons many shellfish, including the piangüas.
All of a sudden he was meters away from us, shouting;
"Be aware of the crocodiles! I saw one near you a while ago..."
I’m not sure if he was joking to make me, an outsider, feel scared, but we started to move out towards the boat, this time we went climbing; walking on top of the roots, a much easier way to get through, but it's kind of tricky, as some of the roots are old and might break, others are crazy slippery, but most of them bend, bearing lots of weight and pressure.
We finally got out and rode back to the mainland. The sun was about to set down and the banks were cleared of water; we saw at least five crocodiles sunbathing on our way, maybe the Pinagüero wasn't joking?
I still enjoyed the experience, an eye-opening occurrence that in between my excitement, I finally had a revelation:
The love spell I've had had on my first trip wasn't a love spell for a person, it was a spell to fall in love with this town, and even though I couldn't find out about the "hair", I sure fell in love with Sierpe and its wonderful people and secrets. Some mysteries are meant to be kept alone, that's how magic is kept alive and that's what Sierpe is, a magical land of puzzled beautiful rarities.
Story & Photos by Juancho Otalvaro
I went out to find food ingredients used in the days of old that are no longer common in the most typical dishes of Costa Rican gastronomy. I found various fruit, roots, and vegetables all used in different recipes and home remedies; but this quest had a different outcome from what I had expected.
I ended up learning stories about the old Costa Rica. These are some stories and facts that I learned from different people in different places.
I started this quest by mapping out different types of farmer’s markets around Costa Rican main cities and rural areas. I found a whole list of very particular ingredients; from dripping juicy sour fruits, to vegetables with weird names; thick beverages that will confuse your taste-buds and uncanny looking medicinal roots and herbs that help digestion and boost any sign of weariness in your body.
These markets really put you into perspective; thousands of products are produced in our country and thus each product has a different story to tell; depending upon location and different altitudes, many regions differ in agricultural crops and techniques. The stories behind each of these ingredients can literally track the roots from where the "Tico" culture comes from. "You are what you eat".
ZONA DE LOS ÁNGELES
The day starts earlier than a rooster’s crow, the old wood stove has been left lightly lit since the last dinner. The smell of strong coffee fills the warmth of the small typical farmer’s “choza” (a small house), the sun hasn’t come out yet but a quick breakfast is necessary to get some strength to start the day. The farmer’s wife is up earlier than he is; she starts her day by cooking large corn tortillas with fresh cheese, once the farmer leaves to work on the field, she goes out looking for near natural water sources, so she can carry it back home to use it on the daily basic needs, though they shower or bathe every 8 days, there are other chores that require water to be done during the day. After doing laundry and if the weather was sunny enough to dry the clothes, she proceeds to iron, and literally use an iron made of iron, but before starting, she needs to chop some wood, special wood if coal isn’t available. She chops small fragments to put inside the iron, heats it and finally press-irons the clothes while carefully starching the husband’s trousers as the wrong amount of starch might result in an angry husband.
Farmers are tough, resilient work-beasts that are worth admiring for all the hard work they do, but deep inside they are frail, humble men. I heard stories about how many men, farmers, die soon after they become widowers, though women joke about it; saying they die soon after because they can’t make it without all the hard work women do for them - this sounds right.
Women used to get married very young and especially in the rural areas their first-born had more probabilities to die during birth, this was due to the ignorance of a young woman going into labour without any medical help, their only help were experienced women; grandmothers, neighbours or older sisters that had previously been pregnant. With no birth control and because probabilities were high for a birth to go wrong, women could easily give birth 26 times during their lifetime. I met a senior woman who was born under these situations during that time; while cooking “empanadas” (a type of salty stuffed pastry) and still amazed by the events, she recalls:
“When our mom was ready to go into labour, she had to go outside the house, to the coffee plantation we had; she stretched out a coffee bag made of jute down on the floor, crouched down over it and pushed the baby out…Sometimes without any help, she came back to the house with the crying newborn to get it clean. Intrigued with all the buzz, the younger kids would start to ask questions about where did the baby come from, for which the answer always was that she found it under a rock…
The next morning, she had to be kept in quarantine inside the house, while usually someone in our family helped her with the chores and taking care of her.”
There are many unreal stories like this, but it’s all part of the life here; most of their beliefs and practices are based on their heritage and the way how they work the field, which is based on predictions of how they relate the weather and the moon with the crops. Farmers work with a different calendar and they base it with two forecasts: “Las Canículas” (“dog days”) when the weather is dry and the land is not ready to be sowed and “Las Pintas” which are the first thirteen days of the year; these first thirteen days dictate how each first day of every month is going to be.
If you’re a fisherman then you should know not to fish during the full moon; there is a belief that during this time, the tides are more unstable and thus, dangerous. But also, during a full moon, you should cut your hair if you have growth problems up there, especially if you’re a girl or a woman.
There is almost a mystical notion on how the Costa Rican past used to work and possibly still does in certain places of the country. This small part of its folklore is an apprehension of truths that are already implanted in every Costa Rican, though many might not even know it, this is their raison d’etre and what makes every culture so special.
Costa Rica literally means “Rich Coast”; first named by the settlers that migrate here; they saw an immediate attraction through sweeping mountain ranges, dense jungles, animals and plant diversity.
Colonialism drove the country to farm, and agriculture requires altering and changing the landscape. Costa Rica is yet a very “green” country but large sectors of forest are demolished to make way to huge corporate agricultural fields which end up causing considerable effects on the surrounding biodiversity. Costa Rica ranks first in the World on pesticide use, but you wouldn’t see heavy use of pesticides during the days of yesteryear, what you would see instead were native fruit trees and edible flowers growing along the ballast roads, many of these used as cooking ingredients that you don’t see any more on the tico’s diet. Something was obviously lost along with the hundreds of acres deforested and covered with only one type of plant, which by the way, also decreases the population of insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.
But farmers didn’t know much about all this, they grew with land rights and it was the only thing they knew how to do.
It’s 9 am lunchtime out here in the field. It’s time for a quick meal, a well-deserved energy-boost-snack before getting back to work. There are different jobs the farmer must do, but this bit of the quest was extracted from a sugarcane farm. Sugarcane fields are places that might look like any other plantation, but its singularity hides between the tall stalks. The intense heat of the day starts very early, you can feel a nice cold morning breeze, maybe even some light rain before mid-day, but you can feel every sun ray burning with no remorse on the back of your neck. Farmers cover themselves thoroughly, but not because of the sun, it is to protect themselves from the many dangers inside the crops; once you’re inside, the temperature rises 2 or 3 degrees and this is the perfect setting for “terciopelos” (fer-de-lance snakes) a deadly viper that is not as much as terrifying as the well-hidden wasp and bee-hives that are often hit by mistake with the sharp machetes, the result of this are hundreds of terrible sting wounds.
These scars and lacerations are not in vain, farmers proudly wear them. San Carlos is the largest canton in the country and produces the biggest percentage of food for the whole country, they are also responsible for 65% of all the milk that Costa Rica utilizes.
They tell me “Los Sancarleños” (how they call its people) are many alike Jewish communities, they always have helped each other and think first in aiding their own before other neighbouring towns or cities (even though they are very friendly with outsiders). This might be true, as San Carlos was supposedly a land where many Spanish Jews migrated looking for better opportunities. This bond between its people created a humble nice environment surrounded by natural beauty and crop fields. It is a place where not only its people live in harmony with each other, but also with nature. Many estates here are conscious when protecting forests and natural borders at their crop fields; the same goes for wildlife that sometimes sneaks around the crops to “steal” food.
Like many farmers, Sancarleños are always looking for making the most of the resources available and the first thing you will notice at these estates are the “live fences” that surround the properties. These are fences made out of fallen trees by lightning or just rotten old trees that give way to younger new ones; most of these are, “Poró, Teka and Palo Negro” strong, sturdy wood. These natural fences mark the grounds, delimiting the natural protected areas; which is common to see around this region. Huge hills border the farms at the skirts of a near inactive volcano and the government pays a fee to all farmers that take care of these areas, making sure that they report any illegal hunting activity or any wildlife that enters their estate so that the appropriate authorities receive the call to ensure the proper measures for each case.
Farmers have to deal with huge biological communities of interacting organisms, after all, these ecosystems were here before their crops, but still, there is a negative impact caused by plant agriculture.
There are many other different snakes besides the infamous "fer de lance". The “Becker” or commonly known as Boa helps with plague control. Other snakes, known as “Zopilota“ (Mussurana) eat the eggs from other poisonous snakes. It seems that nature balances itself, but in sugarcane plantations, the “terciopelo” (fer de lance) is always the king, as when the fields are cleared, its preys have fewer places to hide, causing ease in their hunt and now their survival rate has become a higher danger for farmers, which results in the killing of the reptiles.
At some of these farms, you might be able to see the white-faced capuchin monkey or better known as the “Cariblanco”. These crafty, scheming troops of monkeys are very well organized when stealing from the crops. They send out scouts to see if there are any humans around and if they don’t see any threat, they make sure to let the others know. The troops invade the sugarcanes leaving destruction along their way. A very smart play from the farmers was to plant plantain trees as a barrier to the sugarcane, this way the monkeys will be more interested in the bananas than the sugarcane, which represents a bit more of a risk to them.
When it’s time for the “zafra” (the sugar harvest) many lost fawn appear inside the sugarcane plantation, so the farmers take them back to the wild; although some of them are not picked up by the doe, so they are picked up by special authorities that take them to wildlife refuges.
In general, there is a visible effort to live in balance with the natural surroundings at these farms and many of them are trying hard to become self-sustainable systems and try to preserve the diverse ecology in a controlled environment that doesn’t deplete the soils nor water supplies. Some of these measures are being done with crop rotation and instead of using pesticides, they harvest plants that work as natural pest repellents. All these lead to better, more organic ingredients that might help farm goods make a comeback and hopefully bring back many old-fashioned recipes to give a richer variety in the gastronomical aspect of the Tico culture.
Guanacaste is known for its nice beaches and huge hotel industry, but also it is a land that focuses on cattle. It is almost noon and 5 workers are trying to catch a bull to castrate it. Guanacaste can spend almost nine months without seeing any rain, it’s a hard-hot day and some of the cattle got out of the corrals and are damaging the crops, but here, they respect lunch hours and that can be taken care of later. A big lunch is waiting and breeders and farmers know they must have good nourishment to withstand the daily routine of hard work; this is also helpful to keep your mind sharp and helps you communicate better with a healthier behavior with your co-workers, an active mind helps you get through the day.
Rice, beans, plantains and hopefully some meat, chicken is more common; that’s the basics of the famously known “casado” that you can usually find at Sodas (small classic restaurants). It may seem like a simple balanced dish, but in the past, these four ingredients consisted of lots of hard work.
After the grains were collected and sun-dried it was carried into a “pilón” (kind of a wooden container) where it was smashed to peel it from its shell, afterwards it was ready to cook, it only lasted up to three days until it became inedible. This was one of the other chores repeated by women during the week.
Without refrigeration, there were different ways to prepare meat and usually, it was scarce, but it was always used for big celebrations and parties. A woman I met at a farmer’s market recalls:
“When my little sister had her baptism, I remember her godfather brought a live chicken and because my mom and aunts were busy cooking for everyone, I was given the chore to kill it. I didn’t have a clue of how to do it, but I had to learn how from a very young; kill it and pluck it. It is not a very nice work for a small child, but during your adult life, these are the chores you were stock up with…”
“Madero Negro” or “gallinita” is a special old recipe she told me was a very common chicken dish prepared with a medicinal plant called “Verdolaga” (purslane), but now because all of the pesticides is hard to find, as it is confused with a common weed and the same has happened with many other different plants.
Everything had a different flavor, especially meat. Meat could last several months without going bad and it was due to the smoking process it had to preserve it. The head of the family (usually the man), killed the cow or pig, this will take a while, soon after he had the different cuts ready, he will proceed to marinate the cuts with herbs and then smoke it. After it was ready, he would keep it inside an airtight container, which was kept inside a shed where the temperature was lower in the shadow; basically, this acted out as a fridge. No one else but the head of the family was allowed to open the meat containers because of the belief that if someone else did, the meat would go bad. When they wanted to cook some of that meat, they would then soften it with water and smash it with a hammer for a long period of time until the meat became soft to usually prepare it for “Olla de carne” (a typical Costa Rican soup).
FRUIT & VEGETABLES
Baked or fried plantain is very common to have on the typical dish, but there were many other ingredients used for salads, one of them was “yuplón” (known as June Plum or ambarella fruit). It is a fibrous fruit used especially when tender, to make a salad with some lemon, onion, peppers, and garlic, most fruit and vegetables had this same recipe, similar to “ceviche” (raw fish with citrus juices).
There is yet a lot to learn from the thousands of ingredients available in the country, especially the ones used back in the days where everything seemed so simple, yet everything consisted of hard work; labour that characterized the Tico as nice, noble, “campesinos” (farmers). What they grew and what they ate was a lifestyle, lost with the industrialization of farming; lost recipes, lost manners, lost culture that gave way to globalization, adapting external ways of life that are not our own. All these are elaborated with simple ingredients and we can still see it on the menus of many restaurants that have lost the original seasoning and formulas to a good Costa Rican menu. All this disassociation of food and culture is rooted in the environment; nowadays we might know a lot about health and diets, but we eat less healthy and the practices of how agriculture is heading will end up in the loss of culture and ecology. The farm has lost its fostering relationship, its effects have become devastating.
Places like the ones I visited and the people that think and remember the “old-ways” reminds us that we can work the land in different ways, self-sustained systems that work together with the environment and thus, produce healthier, native ingredients and rescue the little of what’s left of the Tico gastronomy, which is a legacy from our ancestors that reminds us what we eat and who we are.
Story & Photos by Juancho Otalvaro