Thursday, June 23, 2005

Honeymoon: Matapalo, Where The Wild Things Are

[Previously: Malpais proves to be rather unappealing so we decide to go to Matapalo and have just made it as back to San Jose, to a hotel that falsely advertised the availability of hot water]

Once we'd accepted that there was no hot water to be had and had taken yet another cold shower, we tried to get some sleep. This was when we found out that sometimes, what you don't advertise is as important as what you do advertise. In this case, what hadn't been clear was the fact that our hotel was directly next to the main street through town and that our room specifically actually jutted out over the road. This particular arrangement meant that we got to enjoy the full auditory range of the noise produced by internal combustion engines, from trucks, cars, scooters etc. I think at one point there was even a small plane that rolled by underneath our room. All in all, not exactly a peak sleeping experience.

We got up at the crack of dawn the next morning [which was pretty easy, since we didn't really sleep anyway] and prepared to head for the airport to catch our flight to Puerto Jimenez. There was only one small task that we had to perform beforehand, namely dropping off our rental car. The instructions said to drop it off at the "airport rental car return office", so off we went to the [international] airport. When we got to the bit of the airport that had rental car offices, there was nobody around, which wasn't entirely surprising, given that it was around 6:30 am, but still rather inconvenient for us. After banging on a few doors, somebody finally showed up, listened to my explanation and then said, as if it was perfectly obvious, "Oh, you want the airport rental car return office ? That's not actually at the airport, that's back in town".

Riiiight. While sorely tempted to get into an argument along the lines of "Then why the #$@@$^^% is it called the 'airport' rental car return office ?", I merely sighed and asked for directions to the office. This revealed another feature of Costa Rican life that I guess I should have expected, given that it's the same in Ghana -- road signs and marked exits [off freeways] are few and far between, so the general gist of directions is something like "Go until you pass under a bridge and see RandomCorp on your right, then take the 2nd ... or 3rd ... exit after that, take a left at the blue billboard etc". Those sorts of directions will get you lots of things, but they won't get you to the right place quickly, especially if you're in a totally foreign city. We spent a good 20-30 minutes trying to find the office, based on the directions, trying out ever-new variations of what he might have meant, like "Did he mean the 3rd exit after RandomCorp or after the bridge ? Did you notice a slight hesitation in his voice when he said 3rd ? Do you think he meant the 4th exit ?". Finally, mostly by sheer luck and adopting a random search strategy, we happened to find what we were looking for.

At this point, we still had to get to another airport in time for our 8:30 am flight, so we rushed in, threw the keys on the counter and signed every piece of paper they shoved at us as quickly as possible. Our car had also acquired a large dent, source totally unknown, and I didn't even bother trying to establish whether that was covered under the insurance I'd paid when we rented the car -- I just took the rental agent outside, showed him the dent, said "Look, there's a dent, deal with it". With that all taken care of, we hopped into a taxi and took off for the airport to catch our flight to Puerto Jimenez.

Puerto Jimenez doesn't have so much an airport as it has a single landing strip hacked out in the middle of town. The landing strip is paved [poorly], but that's about it. This means that the range of aircraft it can accomodate is pretty limited, so all the flights into and out of Puerto Jimenez are little puddle-jumpers [the first time we went, we were in a plane that held 5 people, including the pilot ...]. The net result of this is that they have pretty low limits on luggage and charge you a silly amount for having more than their maximum. We'd totally neglected to take this into account, so we were rather unpleasantly surprised when, during "checkin" [which amounted to walking up to a rickety little table with a bathroom scale on it], we were cheerfully told "Ok, that'll be an extra X dollars for your baggage. In cash." There was no arguing about it -- our choices were to leave our luggage behind or pay up. Luckily, I happened to have enough cash with me to pay for it, barely. After that, our hour-long flight to Puerto Jimenez was uneventful.

At this point, I must digress a bit to give you, gentle reader, an idea about Puerto Jimenez, and Matapalo, our eventual destination. They are both on the Osa Peninsula, on the Pacific side of Costa Rica. Puerto Jimenez is a quiet little town that is mainly used as a jumping-off point for people heading into the Corcovado National Park, which is a huge expanse of virgin rain forest. Matapalo can't even be called a village -- it's basically a collection of houses hacked out of the jungle by really, really determined people, many of them expats. All the electricity comes from solar power, their water comes from a spring somewhere up in the jungle [which they found and tapped themselves], communication occurs via CB radio [everybody has their own frequency, so to get in touch with somebody you tune to their frequency and yell their name into the walkie-talkie until somebody answers ...] and to get there from Puerto Jimenez you have to ride in a pickup truck that is capable of navigating the totally unpaved road [which can be especially tricky in the rainy season]. To get back into town, you have to radio into town and request that a truck come out and get you, so you have to plan a couple of hours in advance. The houses are literally in the middle of the jungle, and surrounded by insane amounts of wildlife -- you're woken up at 5 am by howler monkeys doing their thing 50 yards away [a truly scary thing the first time you hear them], scarlet macaws fly by regularly, coatimundis hang out around the house, you can see the occasional sloth hanging from a tree, huge blue morpho butterflies flutter around ... you get the picture. Put all this together with pristine beaches, warm water, several surf breaks and you truly have an unspoiled tropical paradise.

One slightly dark side of this bit of paradise, at least from a surfer's perspective, is that the folks who live there know how good they have it in terms of uncrowded surf, and are determined to keep it that way. They do this by dint of either not renting rooms to surfers [meaning surfers have to make the trek out from Puerto Jimenez every day] or insisting that surfers who want to rent rooms take "surfing lessons", which basically means shelling out an extra $10-20/day. Annoying on one hand, but understandable on the other -- I'd guard a spot like that pretty jealously too.

In any case, this is the spot that we fell in love with the first time we were there, Christmas '02, and is what we were hoping would rescue our honeymoon.

We'd rented the same place we rented on our previous vacation, with the same housekeeper, and were once again met by Mike Hennessy, who both runs a sportfishing operation out of Puerto Jimenez and acts as the property manager for a bunch of the houses that are rented out. Mike is the most permanently stoked person I've ever met [with the possible exception of my friend Ron] -- everything is always awesome, epic and insane. So, of course, when we got there he was telling us how great the surf had been, and was going to be, and how we'd be super-stoked etc. His good mood was contagious and so, finally, we'd arrived at our Happy Place. Right ?

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