“Go ahead, use the bathroom in the hotel,” the guard told me in Spanish, revealing that he could understand the conversation my wife and I were having in English. He smiled. “I’ll watch your bags,” he said.
Like hell, I thought. Most of my travel has been in Mexico and El Salvador, and the thought of leaving our bags out on the street appalled me. “Gracias, pero estoy bien,” I told him. “Thanks, but I’m fine.”
But I wasn’t fine at all. Living on “Tico time” didn’t interest me, even though all the smiling Costa Ricans – or Ticos, as they call themselves – were enjoying the morning far more than I was.
I wanted to get our luggage safely aboard the minibus for the four-hour ride down to the Pacific Coast. I wanted someone to explain the exchange rate to me. I wanted to use the bathroom.
And worse yet, everyone seemed to notice how uptight I was. I wasn’t wearing one of those tropical sun hats that instantly mark you as a tourist – but I might as well have been, with the words “Nervous Guy” embroidered above the brim, where the little toucan should have been.
Everyone kept trying to help me relax.
“Why don’t you sit up front with me?” the driver of the minibus asked me when we finally headed out. (My wife did not object.) “The ice is safe,” the waitress at our lunch stop assured me. (Instant death, in my experience.) “Oh, yes, I’ll lock up your passports,” the owner of our lovely bed-and-breakfast inn said after showing us to our cottage. (Whereupon, she went for a swim and left the passports at the edge of the pool for 30 minutes – not that I was watching.)
We had flown to Costa Rica from Albuquerque on Mission Relaxation. We were keeping this trip very simple: one night in the capital of San Jose, four days at the bed-and-breakfast overlooking the Pacific, then back to the capital for a night and home.
Visitors to Costa Rica love to tell you about their zipline rides above the jungle canopy, their white-water raft trips, their hikes up active volcanoes. Not us. We were going to tell you about the walks we took on the beach, the books we read on the porch. That was the mission – but so far it was unaccomplished by me.
And in truth, it was never accomplished by me. It was accomplished by the surf, which boomed on the black sand beach far below us like an earth-shaking heartbeat. It was accomplished by the inn’s breakfasts, which always started with fresh papaya, pineapple and watermelon and ended with “just a little more coffee, señor?” It was accomplished by the mischievous little squirrel monkeys, which came out to play in the trees above our cottage during the cool of the evenings.
We always slept with our windows open because – actually – there were no windows to close. There were simply screens across the big open windows, summer and winter. What a paradise!
Fortunately, we didn’t just sit on our porch for four days. From our rocking chairs we could see the misty green headlands of Manuel Antonio National Park, jutting into the Pacific above one of the best swimming and snorkeling beaches on the nation’s coast.
“Pura belleza,” the cab driver said when he dropped us at the entrance to the park. “Pure beauty.” And pure walking, too. I had imagined a shuttle system, a restaurant with great views of the surf, a gift shop. But the park is a wildlife preserve. Human beings are visitors, restricted to footpaths and beaches.
Above the shadowy paths – swinging from branches, clinging to tree trunks, flitting through the leaves – were the rightful owners of the park: howler monkeys, two-toed sloths, red-headed woodpeckers and toucans.
Our world for those four days was a five-mile stretch of road from the fishing port of Quepos to the tip of Manuel Antonio Park. Small hotels and countless restaurants and bars line the road. The Pacific is almost always in sight, about a quarter-mile down the hillside.
Once we learned to get out of the taxicabs and jump aboard the local buses, we began to understand why so many Americans have chosen to retire to Costa Rica. The Ticos really are as friendly as people tell you, even when they’re riding to and from work.
When it was time for us to go back to the capital, I discovered that I was in no hurry to catch the minibus. “Tranquilo,” I told myself. “We’ll come back.”