Beef in the Bush of Costa Rica

water leaking through bush


monkey hanging in bush


soggy underbush


self-referential fractal bush


bush at edge of Caribbean


white-faced capuchin


howler monkey in canopy


3-toed sloth


2-toed hanging from wire


Caribbean splash


brain coral






crab skeleton


howler sleeping


crater of Irazu


coati eating poundcake


orange buds


lake in crater of Irazu


muddy falls


bush roots


sunset with pelican




iguana hiding in mangrove


monkey on the move






tree frog on elephant ear


sand formation


Arenal falls


Arenal lava


unidentified plant


Arenal at night




Arenal fart


water falling


"sun-burned gringo tree"

Aug 28, 2004– NYC to San Jose

We’re headed through the stroboscopic Lincoln Tunnel, under the weight of the Hudson River. We haven’t left the ground yet, but our trip has begun—our quest for interesting life forms in the jungles of Costa Rica. We didn’t plan it this way—missing out on the elephant hunt during the republican national convention—but I’ll trade rainforest flora & fauna chaos on the isthmus between the Americas for homeland political & concrete jungle chaos.

Now, looking back on the river we just went under, corkscrewing our way into the garden state, I can see our city as seen from the outside. It is fast fading. In between writing this, I am reading Lutz’ “I Looked Alive”. A title for how I’m feeling as of late is “I Sprung a Leak,” because that about sums it up. Sapped by a city of vampires. For every hole that I patch, I start leaking from somewhere else. I need an oil change and nothing back in the city can replenish me without depleting me.

Airborne. We are leaving the earth. Other languages might have better verbs to “take off,” but it’s hard to beat “airborne.”

Now we are landing in San Jose in the dark. It is raining.

The guy at the rental car place told us our hotel is in a seedy area with transvestites. Our guidebook also said that Ticos (what Costa Ricans want you to call them) were completely insane maniacal drivers that vented their macho and masochistic tendencies through vehicular terrorism. Either some people lead sheltered lives or coming from NY everything seems tamer. We found the drivers to be aggravatingly slow and courteous, and our hotel (Don Carlos) was in what seemed to us like a quiet residential area (but I guess this is downtown San Jose).

It was late and everything was closed so I just ran out to some café in the drizzle and got a pizza to go. I sat at the bar while I waited and watched the Ticos on their dates, all smoking, all dressed nice, having a good time with friends. San Jose seems like the Boston of Latin America. The clean-cut guys wear ties with leather jackets even when not at work.  

Aug 29 — San Jose to Cahuita

Waking up in our huge room. Hard to get used to so much space and silence. It’s still dark out but the roosters are crowing already. The room feels like some sort of Swiss Colonial ski hut in the off-season. It’s cool and clammy and all the surfaces are covered with a moist film. Lots of foreign detergent smells.

Once we untangled ourselves from the mesh of unmarked roads making up the San Jose metropolis, we found ourselves on a narrow road through lush escarpments—everything you imagined rainforests to be like. We really didn't know where we were going, and rather than pick a destination and try to force our way to it, we decided to go with the flow and let the destination pick us, and so we ended up heading in an easterly direction through the dense upper rainforests in the mountain passes. It was like a macrocosmic trip on a moldy and fungus-ridden fruit, every square centimeter of space smothered with some sort of plant matter, including the guardrails and road signs. If you stood in one place for a few hours, something would probably start growing on you.

We came out of the mountains and into the still lush lowlands on the Caribbean side, stopping for lunch in Puerto Limon—a bustling port with little for tourists. Had a typical lunch, casado, which we would find was pretty much what we would get for breakfast lunch and dinner—rice and beans mixed together with whatever leftover was in the kitchen at the time. Not a bad place if you eat to live.

We continued on south down the Caribbean coast to Cahuita, which was little more than a grid of a few dirt roads along the beach bordering Cahuita national park. The beach we were staying on was a long black beach strewn with driftwood and debris like there had recently been a hurricane, but evidently this is how it always looks.

Went for an evening walk in Cahuita natl. park to begin our search for “beef in the bush”, and within ten minutes we came upon a troop of white-faced Capuchin monkeys high in the canopy—rambunctious juvenile males and mothers with babies clinging to their backs as they jumped through the trees, all dropping remnants of what they didn’t eat all over us. Monkey’s are messy and wasteful eaters. They’ll take one bite and throw the rest of the fruit down.

Then, high in the branches, I spotted a sloth through my binoculars. We could go home now—this was the holy grail of beef. This particular one was of the 2-toed variety. We got all excited and craned our necks and took a thousand pictures of the underbelly of canopy too dark to get on film.

When we finally continued on, we discovered that the sloths and monkeys were everywhere in the trees overhead. Spider monkeys and howler monkeys. All on the move, foraging, mating, howling, pondering. Lots of birds, bats, insects, ants, etc.—a cornucopia of biodiversity, as advertised, along a beautiful stretch of beach. What more could you ask for.

When we went back to our hotel there was a huge 2-toed sloth hanging from a telephone wire fifteen off the ground—so still we thought it was dead or stuffed. But slowly and surely, it started to move and hook his away along the wire and up the tree.

While we were sleeping last night, heavy objects were being dropped on our tin roof that woke us up at various points, until the lull of the ocean took us back.  

Aug 30 — Cahuita

Woke up, had Gallo Tinto or “painted rooster” (rice and beans) for breakfast. It seems all the food items here are named after roosters, regardless of whether they have chicken in them or not. A Tico taco is called a “Gallo”. It’s a Gallo-, or cock-worship society, whereas Mexico is a Cabron or goat worship (or anti-worship) society. So if Mexico has the Chupacabra, or goat-sucker, does Costa Rica have some sort of mythical “Chupagallo” or cock-sucker? Plenty of mystery meat in the bush that would prey on roosters and monkeys, I’m sure.

We decided to take a break from the bush and hit the reef to broaden our biodiversity survey. We followed our guide Reynaldo as he carried the outboard motor in a wheelbarrow (he had to take his motor home every night so nobody would steal it) through town yelling random pidgin-spanglish greetings to every passerby. The Caribbean side is predominantly black with lots of rastas, and they speak English and Spanish equally. When I questioned Reynaldo about his preference between the two, he said Spanish and English were the same and refused to acknowledge any differences between the two. His little nephew was also on board with us, an apprentice in training, otherwise we had the trip to ourselves. We got the motor on, and rolled the boat on logs down to the water.

The water was a bit murky, but nevertheless, we saw plenty of sea-beef in the sea-bush—a plethora of colorful fish, coral, mollusks, etc. Jess even got scared by a reef shark that I didn’t believer her about until it snuck up on me and I grabbed a photo before it slunk away. We went snorkeling in two different spots and then Reynaldo dropped us where the river went into the sea and disappeared while he helped some other fisherman in a boat that was filling with water. The fresh water in the lagoon was cool and rust-colored, with little puffer fish bobbing around in it. No alligators.

After our underwater excursion, we went back in the bush, and saw many more sloths, including our first with 3 toes, howler monkeys, birds, crabs, raccoons, etc. We feel bloated from all the food and heat. Drained, not sapped. Stirred, but not shaken.  

Aug 31 — Cahuita à Orosi

Woke up with a splitting headache. Realized I didn’t have enough coffee the day before. Ironic considering we are in Costa Rica (the coffee’s good, but weak). We switched hotels next door to this place run by French Canadians with manicured grounds and immaculate rooms (you have to take your shoes off everywhere you go). After much needed coffee and fruit, headed out, backtracking towards Orosi at the suggestion of the people at our hotel. The roads through the hill-country were slow-going, but lots to look at. Not pristine, but picturesque in a lived-in way. Village after village with kids in school uniforms walking in the middle of the road. Pedestrians have the right away in Costa Rica and they all walk in the middle of the highway.

We got lost but it didn’t matter. We ended up Irazu, the highest point in Costa Rica, a 3500-meter volcano. It was misty and cold. We stopped for a cappuccino at a chalet-lodge to warm ourselves up. In the parking lot there was a coati who was on a mission to steal bread from a Tico tourist in a mini-van. As he was getting the loaf (a special marble pound-cake that his wife baked), the coati snatched the loaf, and there was a confrontation, both sides refusing to let go until the pound-cake flew through the air and the coati pounced on it. Needless to say, the wife was not as pleased with the outcome as the coati was.

We went and explored the crater, or I guess I should say craters as there were three. One big vast crater that we were walking in, and two inner craters within the crater, one with a vibrant green lake that changes color depending on the minerals du jour. We had the whole place to ourselves. It was all very surreal and jurassic, ashen gray plains with the clouds pouring in and weird new growths emerging from the crater. Throw in a thunderstorm and these would have been conditions from which life emerged.

After that, we rolled off the mountain and into the coffee country around Orosi. Orosi’s a bit slow, a normal town with normal people whose main attraction, the hot springs, closed at 4 p.m. and there was a church that was also closed. Costa Rica lacks the old churches and buildings that other parts of Latin America has, partly because of all the earthquakes that destroyed them and it was in a dead zone between the Mayan and Incan cultures (why would the Spanish want to colonize a place where hardly anybody was already living?). The most interesting church was in Cartago—it was just the ruins of a church with no roof and a garden growing inside it.


Sept 1 — Orosi à Tamarindo

Day of travel. Pretty much traveled across the entire country. We decided to skip the southern pacific coast just so we would have more time on the northern coast. We tried to go around San Jose to no avail. San Jose is a magnet that sucks in all roads into a chaotic cluster of random habitation. None of the roads are marked in Costa Rica so we didn’t know were we were or where we were going. We just kept our eye on the horizon and plowed through, trying to follow the general flow of traffic until we were eventually spit out on the other side of San Jose.

The roads to the northern pacific side were not as rainforesty as our descent to the other side, but the roads were starting to live up to the reputation of being piss-poor and chock full of potholes. What patches of pristine rainforest there were (a patch of forest on someone’s farm), there was inevitably some sort of “Canopy Ride” or Bungee jump or adventure ropes contraption gimmick. Why do people always have to make “rides” of everything to bring tourists? The whole country felt like an eco-Disney Land, though “eco” is giving them too much credit, and that’s like saying skiing or sport climbing is ecologically friendly. Spending $50 to trust your life to some wet old ropes set up by some guy you don’t know didn’t sound like too much fun, but that seemed to be the prevailing activity in Costa Rica.

Tamarindo is a surfer town with gringo and tico surfer types loitering barefoot and shirtless, waiting for the tides to turn or buy crystal meth. It’s not really a town, but a clustering of surf shops and restaurants on a muddy road. We’re staying at a place at the end of the road that translates to “Captain Swiss.” It’s completely decadent with huge rooms and lush gardens. Howler monkey hang out in the trees above the pool dropping guanabanas on you while you are sunbathing or swimming. Iguanas crawl all over the place and into the restaurant and to the edge of the pool. At night, there were raccoons prowling all over the place.

The bodysurfing was good right outside of our hotel, as long as you knew where the submerged rocks were. The tides are really extreme here. It’s a vast beach at low tide when you can walk out for a quarter of a mile on wet sand full of clams, snails and crabs. At high tide there’s barely room to walk between the waves and the jungle.

The good surfing is at the mouth of the river near the center of town, but way too crowded to butt in. Every decent wave had 10 long-haired and tan surfer kids on it, jockeying for territory.

Jess got a spider bit that took a turn for the worse, and to make matters worse she has gripa, or some sort of Tico cold. She is all achey and coughy, but she is being a good sport about it.  

Sept 2 — Tamarindo

Went out to Playa Grande, where at night the turtles come in to lay their eggs and during the day surfers rule. It was low tide so there were no surfers, but lots of shells and sand markings.

We explored some other beaches, but it’s hard to find anything or figure out where you are since nothing is marked. It took hours just to find the gas station. At playa conchal we saw manta rays swimming just below the surface, but it was hard to relax on the beach when everyone kept saying our car was going to get stolen— evidently you couldn’t even leave your towel on the beach without somebody coming out of the bush and stealing it.

We went back to Capt. Swiss and I boogie-boarded all afternoon while Jess slept off her gripa and spider bite. We ate dinner with the raccoons to the tune of a surreally bad marimba band.  

Sept 3 — Arenal

Had breakfast with the iguanas, they were even brave enough to eat out of my hand. Jess was feeling a bit better. We headed out toward Volcano Arenal. Stopped at some random place in the middle of nowhere for lunch and had “cocks” which were like greasy and bland tacos. The windy landscape around Arenal lake felt more like Northern California. Lots of the land is clear-cut pastures, with occasional patches of rainforest and the perpetually-shrouded Arenal volcano looming and grumbling overhead. Saw more monkeys along the way. The town of Arenal is nothing to write about, we are staying at this guest house that seriously feels like someone’s guest house above their garage, with a specatcular view across a ravine into a cross-section of rainforest. The guest house is run by some Canadian who is off in Canada, so our host is a Nicaraguan family that is house-sitting. It started raining when we arrived and we watched it from our balcony.  

Sept 4 — Arenal

Woke up and saw our first toucans. Actually, one of them was technically a collared aracari, and the other was a chestnut-mandible toucan—we have yet to see the fruit loops toucan. We have a 180 degree view of the rainforest and Arenal overhead from our bed. Not bad for $40 a night, though it was hard to sleep with all the weird creatures living underneath the tiles. Between the sound of the river, the crickets and bats, and the grumbling and hissing of Arenal, we could hear mice and birds and whatever else scurrying around, sounding like they were in our room with us. Underneath our balcony we saw bats and giant toads, praying mantis, stick bugs, and other stuff we could not even identify. But we did not really see Arenal as it was shrouded in clouds the whole night.

We were treated to a fantastic breakfast by our Nicaraguan hosts, seated out on the grass overlooking the jungly ravine. We went to the park and hiked this long trail through the lava flows and into the thick of the jungle. Saw our first coati in the wild (was actually afraid of us and wasn’t mangy) and also a huge iridescent blue morpho butterfly. We also saw these huge flightless birds that made strange clucking sounds and some other wild turkey looking birds that hung out way up in the trees, but I don’t know what they were. Identifying some of the beef we saw in the bush:

Blue gray tanager

Scarlet rumped tanager

White throated magpie jay

Violet sabrewing

Squirrel cachoo

Green parrots

King vulture


Variegated squirrel

We headed to the Tobacon hot springs but $29 to dip in some hot water seemed ridiculous so we went to the other ones that were half the price. Sipped piña coladas, dipped in and out of hot water and watched boulders of hot lava tumble out of the mist and down the slopes of Arenal. One of the hot tubs was supposedly 187 degrees, and felt hot enough to take the flesh off your bone. A good environment to ponder the meaning of life and how it all got started and ended up how it is.

That night when it got dark we could see the boulders of lava tumbling out of the clouds, with lightning as a backdrop. We waited for the clouds to clear but they never quite did. Then I woke up in the middle of the night and it was completely clear. You could see lave spewing from the top and also from a hole in the middle of the cone. Through the binoculars, I could see boulders the size of houses, tumbling, then shatterinh in smaller pieces, caterwauling all they way down the cone of ash and cinder to the edge of the rainforest, like sparks coming off the anvil of the supreme blacksmith.  

Sept 5 — Rosario

Woke up at odd hours of the night to check on Arenal. The creatures were making all sorts of noise under our roof. Other people with white shirts showed up in the middle of the night and parked in the garage underneath us. Time lost its linearity.

We had the worse croissant imaginable from the town bakery. They don’t call them “shrimps” like the do in Mexico, or “half-moons” like they do in Argentina, but “congrejos” or “crabs”. They tasted like stale and salty crab crap soaked in beef lard.

We asked around til’ we found the Arenal waterfalls. Hiked down a steep ravine to get to it. Lots of water relentlessly pouring over a vegetated cliff. Stupid tourists swimming near the waterfall despite the warnings. There was even a sign (in Spanish) that translated to “Scenes of Love Prohibited.”

On our way back towards the Poas region we finally got doused. We had been lucky thus far, only getting showers here and there but never anything that hindered our activity. And we were very lucky to see Arenal as I guess it rarely shows its face. But now it was pouring non-stop. We stopped at a typical roadside Tico restaurant, that ended up being the best meal we had in all of Costa Rica, even though we didn’t go for the featured “bowel soup” that everybody else was eating. I had to ask to make sure there wasn’t a translation error or typo. Indeed, beef butthole soup. I can understand beef butt, but isn’t a bowel technically a cavity? And a cavity that stores shit before it is evacuated? We must have been losing our sense of adventure. The typical “painted cock” was good enough for me and jess had a soup of various starchy roots and vegetables.

We ended up at this nice resort near Rosario, not far from Alajuela, that was ironically hosting some sort of Cheney-Bush support group by the pool. They let us stay there despite our political preferences, but it still felt strange to think that we were indirectly supporting Bush’s re-election. Besides being politically apathetic, our last day we didn’t want to do much else besides chill on the hotel grounds, play with the dogs, and swim in the pool with the other loco gringos (including other confused democrats). There were some trails leading down this insane vertical cliff covered with foliage, down to this muddy waterfall. We wandered the grounds. We lazed away the day in the bamboo forests. Or we occupied our time by trying to remember the name of the Clint Eastwood movie with the Orangutan. It was driving us crazy.

We had a ridiculously early flight out, so the night before we went and stayed at a hotel near the airport that had cable TV and computers, slowly acclimatized ourselves, and found out that nothing really happened while we were gone. It was good to verify for ourselves that while we are wrapped up in our daily human dramas, life continues to go on in the bush, and will continue to do so in one form or another.

foreign humans in bush