Day 4: Woodpeckers, snorkelling and night-time adventures…

I am writing this sat under a mimosa, the light is fading, flocks of noisy toucans head towards their roost, the occasional howler monkey’s monster-like call can be heard coming from the trees in the distance, and the night time insects begin their chorus.  In front of me there is a makeshift football pitch where the local villagers play boys against girls.  The girls, it seems, are winning. The sky is turning a beautiful Caribbean pink between the trees.  It is now day 5 but I am recalling the wonder of yesterday as this is my first opportunity to pick up my diary……..

By 6am, I am up, cold showered and watching the nesting woodpeckers as they tend their chicks, a humming bird comes to rest on a nearby tree, then one, two and three exquisite butterflies tease my camera lens with their flitting presence.  Two skinks, a toucan, and a blue heron all appear and disappear in the two to three minutes that I am standing by the woodpecker tree.  Everywhere you look there is life.  In all my travels, I have never been anywhere quite like it when wildlife sightings come so swiftly one after the other.  Even as I write this, tiny ants are crawling over my page; little specks of energy.

After a delicious but predictable breakfast of eggs, rice and beans, we head down to the beach.  This time in the opposite direction.  It is four miles to Elephant Point where the boisterous rip currents turn into a still, safe lagoon fit for swimming and snorkelling.  At 8.30am the sun is bearing down on us, the sand is soft and spongy under our feet and our progress is relatively slow.  The distance is deceiving as the point can be seen sparkling in the distance.  There are small tributaries to cross and banks of sand created by the waves.  We come across new green turtle tracks identifiable by the size of their trail and the hole. It is marked by a stick. Achilles explains that it has been seen by the villagers and likely that the eggs are already plundered.  Turtle eggs have been gathered by locals for centuries and it is difficult for conservationists to change such ingrained behaviour without offering alternatives.  But as I look at the tracks and imagine the endeavour of this beautiful, charismatic creature that made them, I feel a deep sense of sadness for the plight of these endangered species and hope that somewhere along this coasts there are more nests beyond the reach of man.

Eventually we arrive at our destination.  The sand has turned to gold as a quintessential Caribbean beach curves around the corner.  The sea is calm, clear and blue, and very inviting.  We are greeted by the inhabitants of an organic farm and eco-lodge, where volunteers come to learn about permaculture and escape the trappings and stresses of modern life.  It has the feel of a kibbutz and the emotional sentiments of modern ‘hippydom’.  I ponder whether it is a model of wholesome and sustainable living or a commune for rich westerners as it is not clear how local people benefit from them being here.  Despite my misgivings, their values and sentiments, and their way of life minus chemicals, plastics and waste is sound; the students love it and wish that they could stay to experience it for a while.

I chat with Nick, an American chap in his late thirties who has escaped a high paid job in the city to ‘heal himself’.  He thoroughly recommends it as a place to ‘rediscover who we are’ and to ‘psychologically sort ourselves out’ as long as you are physically fit as ‘we are a long way from a hospital’.  I am not sure why I am so cynical; he seems very nice and well-intentioned.  But as I don my snorkel and mask, I think how self-centred and privileged it is to travel to another country ‘to find oneself’; something I doubt any of the local Costa Ricans could afford to do.  But then maybe that is true of our small group too but at least we hope our tourist dollars support local businesses.

Despite the lack of coral, there is much to see in this underwater landscape: shoals of brightly coloured fish, octopus, sea urchins and lobsters.  It is the perfect temperature.  There is also time to walk further along the shores of the bay climbing over fallen palms and exploring the volcanic shoreline.  I realise how much I love being by the sea and how restorative it is, the sound, the smell and the sandpipers that trot over the tide lines; it is such a beautiful place.  I can see why the hippies love it here.

The long trudge back to base seems to take forever.  Anita talks in Spanish to Achilles.  I saunter behind them childishly walking in their footsteps as here the sand is made firm and easier to walk on.  He is a wiry man with a very determined face and many stories to tell. Once again he bemoans how many young Costa Ricans have sold their land to international developers only to find themselves slaves to the big business of banana plantations.  He explains to Anita that his family had seen enough of this that by the time the developers came to this southern corner of Costa Rica, they had been determined to benefit from tourism themselves rather than sell up.  But that now he was getting older, some younger members of the family were already thinking of ways they could reap the benefits of selling their land.  Fortunately Pablo, his Grandson was not of that ilk.

Eventually, back at the lodge, cold showers and lunch revived us before a lazy afternoon writing up, sorting out kit and washing clothes. There is a lovely dinner which takes places under the central communal area amongst the gardens.  There is a roof above us and a hammock in the middle where students take turns to swing.  It has a relaxing vibe and apart from the uncomfortable benches is a nice place to while away an afternoon.

As darkness falls Anita and I pick up the powerful torch and make our way towards the beach.  The crescent moon is high and Venus below it is bright and vibrant as the dark blue evening sky turns to blackness.  We stop at the bar to pick up some beer and continue walking towards the beach to get a better look at the night sky and the crabs who would by now be out of their daytime holes.  The white waves break in the darkness and fireflies dance over the sand like flying diamonds.  Orion hovers precariously over the horizon. Conversation flows about the things that have shaped us and how our interest in the natural world began.  But as we are chatting, the stars silently and stealthily disappear as thunderclouds steal their light from the skies.  A distant rumble of thunder, a slow pitter-patter of raindrops and a growing breeze marks the downpour that is quick to follow.  Fortunately there is a cast iron shelter to run to where we find refuge and a log to sit on.

From here we watch as the power of the thundery squall increases and the palm fronds dance eerily in the darkness.  The noise of the rain on the cast iron roof drowns out our conversation; all we can do is to drink our beer and smile at our good fortune to have found shelter.  Two dark shapes come in through the pouring rain towards us.  They are fisherman looking for shelter.  We smile and shrug our shoulders. They open their bags and take out their snacks and the four of us sit until the rain diminishes:  us in our conversation and them in theirs.  It feels a very intimate moment on a remote Caribbean beach.

An hour goes by and at last there is a gap in the clouds, the stars reappear and we decide to run for it as fast as we can the mile back to base.  We can already see the next black cloud looming over the ocean.  We make it just in time.  Our supper has been saved.  We are hungry and it is a thankful end to our small adventure.