[051109; 1712 UTC,
Bahia Huevos, Guanacaste, Costa Rica
N 10 degrees 38.5 /W 085 degrees 41.0]
We last wrote when we had just reached the far northern tip of Costa Rica and were anchored at Bahia Santa Elena within the Parque Nacional Santa Rosa in the province of Guanacaste. This park is one of the largest in Costa Rica and preserves what we understand to be the largest contiguous tract of rare tropical dry forest anywhere, although “dry” was not a word that came to mind during our two and a half week stay.
Tropical dry forest seems like an oxymoron to most of us who consider the term tropical to be nearly synonymous with moist, lush jungle. These forests are dominated by deciduous trees and become nearly devoid of vegetation during the dry season. During this time the hills from afar appear grey and lifeless. Walking through the forest during the wet season (we were visiting during the wettest time of the wet season), the undergrowth is tangled and brushy. The soil appears poor or low in organic content, leaving little capacity for absorption of moisture. Rains create thousands of tiny streams throughout the forest that disappear within a couple of days after rains cease. Rain also means the clear, clean, stony, oligotrophic mountain streams flood quickly to fill narrow valleys to amazing depths, but then also quickly recede when the rain slows or stops.
The bay itself is very large and diverse. Coming upon the Santa Elena peninsula from the north, the view is of a string of dramatic mountain peaks, the Cerros Santa Elena. These peaks clearly dominate the weather here, as we could see clouds precipitating on their summits that would slide down the slopes and out into the bay, creating torrential showers every fifteen minutes; days-upon-days without relief. The bay is entered through a gap in the hills in a wide channel fringed with small jagged rocky islets and opens up to a sock-shaped bay that stretches south and southeast for over a mile. Along the western shore, a sandy bottom creates a pleasant crescent beach filled with thousands of comical hermit crabs that display a rainbow of shell and matching leg colors. Apparently the color of the crab’s legs change to match the color of their shell. This narrow beach ends at a large shear cliff and outlying dangerous reef. Beyond this, the shoreline is low and dominated by mangroves, creating a lush environment for seabirds - egrets, herons, oyster catchers, raptors and (yikes!) caimans (crocodiles).
Beyond the mangroves lie low jungle-covered hills, backed by even higher savannah-covered mountains that captured thick blankets of frosty-looking cloud formations. Circling back to the east and north towards the entrance again, steep undulating jungle covered hills provide habitat for howler monkeys, turkey vultures, ospreys, kingfishers, hawks, wild turkeys and the ubiquitous noisy wild parrots.
Within the bay are three main anchorage areas, north and south of the reef along the western shore and tucked up in the northeast corner tight to the hills. This last anchorage area offers the best protection in the event of a sudden onset winter papagayo event, where gusting gale force winds forced over the Central American isthmus from the Caribbean travel up the Rio San Juan valley, across Lago Nicaragua and fan out into the Pacific basin. When we first arrived, we found an isolated spot away from the other boats at anchor, south of the cliff and reef on the western shore. Here we were adjacent to one of the access points for the dirt road trail. Nearby, a fresh water pool flowed into the bay that is suitable for laundry, refilling our solar shower, etc. From this vantage point, we could also spy wild turkeys on the shore and pelicans on the nearby islet. We were also close enough to the rocky shore to make the fishing great. (Leslie caught a 22 inch triggerfish – the biggest we’ve ever caught - that fed the two of us for two suppers.) With rainy season winding down however, we thought it wise to seek more protection for the anticipated north winds and abandoned our idyllic spot a few days later in favor of the northern shore.
This anchorage was imperfect in our minds in that the bottom shoals quickly, leaving only a narrow shelf of water of suitable depth for anchoring. Normally we select a location that will allow us to swing comfortably around our anchor in 20 – 25 feet of water; here we would see 9 feet or 39 feet depending on how Carina was oriented relative to her anchor! Shallower water is preferable to deep water, though generally the amount of scope (length of chain from the boat to the anchor) is selected to be optimal for the depth and the characteristics of the bottom of the bay (mud, rock, etc.).
North of our anchorage and over the steep but low jungle hills out in the Pacific were small white beaches and bays suitable for snorkeling – or so we thought. One day an expedition of six boats traveled out the mouth of the bay and explored two rocky areas noted in our cruising guides as good snorkeling areas. Unfortunately visibility was not great (possibly due to it being rainy season) and the fish were few, though Leslie spotted a very snake-like creature and Philip nearly collided with a man-sized nurse shark – twice! That put a little bit of a damper on our snorkeling expeditions thereafter.
Those of you who know Philip probably know his mountaineering genes were being expressed just by the site of the wilderness peaks that surrounded us. Every day for a week or more he lamented the rain or the flooding of the trails until finally he stubbornly insisted we set off. On a side note, these lands have a bit of a sordid past. William Walker – remember him? - was defeated near here after he invaded Costa Rica in his unsuccessful attempt to conquer Central America. Later the Samoza family, the all-powerful and corrupt leaders of Nicaragua for decades, stole this land from the country and owned it for a period of time before President Somoza was ousted as president. (President Franklin Roosevelt, in speaking of President Somoza said, “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s OUR son of a bitch”.) In another era, the Contras were said to have had training camps here. Now, of course, all that remains are muddy roads that serve as hiking trails for peaceful park visitors seeking a glimpse at howler monkeys or one of the 850 species of birds reputed to reside in Costa Rica.
Our first hiking expedition involved a trip to the landing on the south end of the bay where we were told there was also access to a road where we could go west out towards the western end of the peninsula or east towards the far off CA-1 highway. When we first landed and looked at the trail to the road, we (really Leslie) were horrified that the trail led straight through a large, though shallow, muddy wetland. Visions of snakes and leeches made her squirm as we squished our way through the mud and leaves, leaning on our bamboo walking sticks for support. Reaching the other side, we quickly found the road and walked west. The road was mostly flooded though some of the water was clean and clear on gravel. We quickly became oblivious to the mud that caked our sandals and our feet.
At one point we came upon a tree that had fallen across the road and it appeared that there was a gap through which we could scramble to get around it. Getting closer, we discovered a hum coming from a small distended hole in the tree’s trunk – a nest of some type of bee. Being prudent (and realizing we hadn’t packed our Benedryl), we tiptoed our way around the nest and over a dirt hump covered with trees wielding heavy two inch thorns and quietly continued on our way. After a mile or more of varied terrain, we finally found the bay overlook we’d been promised – a welcome reward for our hike.
After this first hike, the skies again opened up and Leslie resisted more hikes until the rains subsided. Undeterred, Philip got Bruce of 5th Element, Mollie and David of Tumbleweed, and Gene and Kandy from Passage, to go with him one somewhat dry day to find the site of the legendary falls nearby. Only Philip and Bruce made to “the” falls, though Kandy and Gene had a nice swim in a pool just downstream. Philip’s enthusiastic description and photos finally made Leslie agree to accompany him back to the falls the following day. There were no other parties interested in joining this second Carina falls expedition.
Getting to the falls involved the same wetland crossing that had made Leslie squirm, though this time she knew she’d willingly agreed to the discomfort with the promise of the pristine falls and swimming pool beyond. Out on the road we slogged along for roughly a half a mile, mostly through mud and what we came to think as razor grass – tall stalks of wide scratchy sharp blades that leave tiny cuts as they pass over your skin. When queried, Philip would continue to promise that the destination river was “not that much farther”.
Finally we arrived at the river crossing and turned uphill, wading through the crystal clear shallow water as we carefully selected each step amongst the stones and rushing water. There were a few times when the river was narrow and deep as it ran between low cliffs, forcing us to wade up to our waists for short stretches. Finally arriving at the falls, Philip began to ponder what sights might be explored upstream (no surprise there!), decided to investigate but only after Leslie extracted a promise to return quickly. Leslie took the opportunity to take a short swim (sans clothing) until she discovered little fish nibbling on the skin of her butt. When Philip returned and learned he’d missed the swim, he insisted Leslie join him to frolic in the brilliantly clear pool!
With each passing day, it appeared that the weather pattern was beginning to break, giving us the impetus to push on to other anchorages. In particular, we had set our hearts on visiting the Islas Murcielagos just south of the Cabo Santa Elena. These dry, isolated, preserved islands (named for bats) are known for being exposed to the elements, so the improved weather made us push on. We pulled anchor under a thick blanket of rain clouds at 0515 local time on Halloween Day and pointed our bow in the direction of Cabo Santa Elena and the Islas Murcielagos beyond.
The peninsula Santa Elena terminates at Cabo Santa Elena, a horn known to exemplify all the traits common to the term “cape effect” – confused seas, amplified winds, capricious currents. This cape also marks the northern boundary of the Golfo de Papagayo, named for the winter storm winds that can blow for days. We’d been warned to get around the point early in the day and early it was. With a favorable current and light, following winds pushing us along, we rounded Cabo Santa Elena at about 0830 that morning while Philip was still acting as controller for the Panama Pacific marine radio net! (At the end of the session, he was a little green around the gills from the effect of the big swells we were experiencing!) Chilled, wet Leslie continued to motor- sail the boat towards our nearby anchorage.
Right after rounding the Cape, we were pleased to see the sun come out and the day brightened considerably. Arriving at the anchorage at the islands, we learned our friends on Tumbleweed and 5th Element were picking up and leaving the islands at that same moment. Through VHF radio conversations, we learned they were pushing on to see another friend, Danica, on Alkahest whose mother was gravely ill. Danica was to fly out of Costa Rica in the next day or so. Thinking that Carina would be alone with the park ranger, his guards and the biologists who reside in the ranger station on the shore, we settled in and made breakfast
Within an hour we heard our name being called on the radio and were happy to learn that our friends on Passage had overcome their reluctance at the weather and followed our own passage south. We enjoyed a fun afternoon with these friends exploring the surrounding waters and shores before we retired early to sleep in our cockpit under the stars, all the while floating amongst an equally brilliant universe of phosphorescence in the bay.
From the Murcielagos, we pushed onto Playa del Coco, where we checked into Costa Rica by visiting Migracion, the Port Captain and Aduana (customs). Del Coco is a tourist town dominated by dive shops, gift shops, tour operators and time share salespeople but it has a laid back, comfortable, scruffy feel that made us warm to it. That and the fact it has best grocery store we’ve found since Mexico, allowed us to forgive the fact that it seemed that two out of three people on the street were speaking English and “no see ums” were particularly vicious. Also in the bay is a fishing fleet of “African Queen”-type fishing boats sporting dozens of tall poles with black flags which they use to mark their buoys at sea. These fishing boats displayed pulsing strobe lights at night line that added color to the southeast end of the bay. Howler monkeys could be heard every day at sunrise.
We have yet to see a howler monkey, and may never because they are shy, but experiencing their call makes you think they are monstrous. One morning while anchored in Bahia Santa Elena, Leslie awoke suddenly and even despite a noisy fan overhead, she heard an eerie roar. Climbing up through the hatch to avoid waking Philip, she wrapped herself in a light pareo, and she and Jake just listened. One howler high up in the trees above barked its raspy, throaty, three-pack-a-day roar that often ended in an emphatic whaaa, whaaa, whaaa, wooooo. Amazed that no one else was awoken by this loud roaring, she sat for nearly an hour in the bright morning light while scanning unsuccessfully with binoculars for a glimpse.
Now officially legal and with our 90 day tourist visa clock ticking, we’ve settled into exploring the many bays surrounding Playa del Coco and the larger Bahia Culebra (“bay of snakes”) where we will remain until our friend, Mary Beth O’Brien visits us in early December.
Sus amigos del velero Carina.
Philip, Leslie and el gato supremo, Jake
Bahia Huevos, Guanacaste, Costa Rica