Sabbatical reconnaissance part 2: hunting for a home in the jungle

Last time I described how I met the leaders of Fundación Keto at their marine animal stranding workshop in Heredia. Next morning, I turned my attention to finding a place to live for the family. Joy and I thought about moving to a key humpback nursery area, Bahía Drake (pronounced Dr\a\-ke), but were worried about drawbacks. Principal among these is access. 4 hours from San Jose along the Costanera Sur is a turnoff… 30 kilometers of unpaved road link Drake to the rest of Costa Rica, and there are river crossings that are no joke in the rainy season. There is an airstrip, which actually makes Drake easier to access than much of Costa Rica’s hinterland, but the flights are $100 and come once a day… access to emergency healthcare is something parents worry about.

Of course, back-of-beyond really appeals to my other aspect, the ditch it all for a simple life aspect. Thing is, that also appeals to boatloads of rich tourists seeking high-end rainforest ecoresorts… many of them from Santa Barbara. So, I was envisioning taking my family far away from our central coast extreme entitlement, greenback-tinted sunglasses world to… the same thing, just displaced 3000 miles. But with toucans. I want my kids to practice their Spanish. Hell, I want to practice my Spanish! So I started spreading the net a little wider, and realized that I had to see these places myself in order to make the decision.

In the end I opted to drive the length of the southern coast from Jaco, though Quepos, Dominicál, and Uvita, all the way down to Puerto Jimenez. I would visit schools, drive down streets, look at houses, try (as much as is possible in a 3 day trip) to get a sense of each place. Of course, I had to stop for the obligatory Tarcoles crocodile snapshots:

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From there, it’s a short drive to Jaco, where I stopped for a photo. Not really on the radar as far as a destination for the family, as it’s a bit north of whale density. But it is a lovely little bay. I took this photo while unwittingly standing in a well-worn ant trail… a swarming reminder that I wasn’t in California anymore.

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Next stop was Quepos, nestled up to the tiny but famous Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio. I’m showing this photo to give a sense of place. To be clear, I want my family to experience nature… I certainly don’t want to be too critical of the region we’ll call home for several months, but this town felt like a tourist trap. Bars, restaurants, real estate offices. I should also say that I’m probably the only tourist to visit Costa Rica for a week without doing a canopy tour… this was a work trip, so interesting nature photos (which Manuel Antonio is famous for) are lacking in this post. They will abound, however, after we actually make the move.

IMG_1755  Quepos, main drag

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Having formally turned the corner on the Costanera Sur, I found myself deep in palm plantation country. There’s much to write about the problems with how this monoculture has come to dominate much of the landscape; again, see a future post! For now, suffice it to say that I was still looking for jungle.

IMG_1761 On the highway to Dominicál

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By mid-day I made Dominicál, which is a major surf destination. I visited the school principal and a real estate office. There were definitely homes for rent in the right price-range, and the school was cute and accepting of extranjeros. Between Quepos and Uvita, an idea was starting to solidify – though I was concerned about some aspects of Bahía Drake, its proximity to the vast jungle was starting to win out over the surf camp feel of some of the towns I was passing through.

IMG_1765IMG_1763 Dominicál main drag, and school.

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Last stop on the road to Bahía Drake was Uvita, where I spent the night at Cabinas Los Laureles for $30. I didn’t take many snaps, but the place was similar in feel to Dominicál, though significantly bigger. As with every step of this trip, it was about information-gathering and I was unable to avail myself of any of the snorkelling or kayaking at the Parque Marino Ballena. I did visit two schools (the snaps show how everything’s covered for the RAIN, and the potting shed for their organic garden). I spoke with another principal, who was clearer about details: extranjeros must submit the curriculum from their previous year’s schooling for approval with the state. So there’s a process we’ve still to navigate. Also, primera (my kids are 5 and 7) is only from 7:30-11:30am.

IMG_1767IMG_1766 Uvita school and potting shed

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Finally, Bahía Drake. This was the big question mark of the trip. It is very remote, almost inaccessible by car in the rainy season (now), but there is one flight a day in from San Jose: $100 on a puddle-jumper at a grass landing strip. In the end, I hesitated and nearly skipped it entirely. I am so glad I did not! Even so, the long drive on a rough road, and stream crossings during heavy rains was daunting. The road cuts a winding furrow through beautiful primary and secondary rainforest. Once in a while a ranch emerges, and cows wander. A chestnut mandibled toucan (Ramphastos swainsonii)  and a (poorly digiscoped) great kiskidee were two great sightings… the scarlet macaws were too quick for me to capture. One of the snaps below shows one old land cruiser making it through the last river; it had better clearance than my Rav4, and I watched more than one car turn back. Here’s what I saw on the way:

IMG_4320 IMG_4321 rancho in the forest

IMG_4325 chestnut mandibled toucan

IMG_4333 great kiskidee

IMG_4335 A Pieris butterfly sacrificed itself on the car

IMG_4330 The last river crossing

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I eventually waded across, like all the other locals, and caught a ride from Felix, a gent who owns Ranchito Las Cotingas, whose cute cabins sport amazing views in the village of Agujitas (named for the little river that comes into the bay at its south end). He gave me a lift – 2 miles in the rain would’ve been a bummer, and in the end I’d have probably found a much worse place with less of a view.

And I was sold on Agujitas immediately. Goal achieved. Full stop. Rain, river wading, no car? Not important. Fears about moving to Santa-Barbara-in-Exile? I don’t care anymore. The key sensation to convey about this place is that, at every moment and in every corner, Agujitas is on the verge of being – no, is in the process of being re-absorbed by the virgin rainforest that surrounds it. This is what I want for my children, and for myself. Yes, there is a palm plantation nearby. And yes, the town’s focus is on the tourists (absent now, as it’s the rainy season) that will descend on the place while we’re there. But the message of the rainforest seems to be “Life Wins”. I feel funny saying that, because I love chaos and movies like Epic and Ferngully drive me nuts with their simple balance-of-nature tropes (well, ok, I actually really like Ferngully). But the fact that Agujitas must constantly reclaim itself from the forest is exciting, frightening, and comforting all at once. 

Anyway, we’re going to move there at the end of January.

So I dried out in my cabina, read my Chabon novel, and stopped in at the marisquería next to Rancho Las Cotingas: crab wrapped in fish and fried, with agua de sandia to drink; there is good food to be had in Drake, even in the off season.  The next day Felix’s wife made me breakfast while he made some calls! I only had a couple of hours to spend in town before I had to get back across the swollen river to my car. Felix got me information on boat hires ($400-$600/day… yikes!), rental houses, and schools, all while I drank coffee and watched the boats and birds come and go on the bay. In the end he drove me by two houses on the way back to the river… I didn’t bite on either of those places, though they were very nice, but they did give me a context for thinking about housing in Bahía Drake, generally.

I took a stroll through town to see the school and environs, and met an American expat named Craig who, oddly enough, rents a house out to tourists. I was watching the birds work his feeder, and invited me to have a seat and watch. I took snaps of a beautiful blue tanager and (my birder friends will thrill) a blue-crowned mot-mot. From his back yard, I put a skype call through to Joy and told her the search was over, that it’d be Bahía Drake after all. Craig fed me a banana, and we discussed hiring boats in the Bahía. He also introduced me to his neighbor Emilio who, as it happens, rents out a house which we’re hoping to rent from February to May… more on the house situation after plans are firm.

IMG_4356 The school at Agujitas

IMG_4366 Blue crowned motmot!

IMG_4361 Guanabana fruit

Craig also showed me his Guanabana tree. This fruit is about the size of a volleyball, covered with little spikes, and yields an opalescent juice that’s the most delicious I’ve ever had. Guanabana had been absent in my life until this trip, since I was in Ecuador 25 years ago… I didn’t realize how much I’d missed it.

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Even though I knew the search was over, I did my due diligence and, after wading back across the river and working my way back to the highway, I drove on to Puerto Jimenez. It’s bigger than the surf villages I visited on my way down the coast, but it has the roughness of a frontier town, without the looming, thrilling press of the jungle. So, after a plate of shrimp fried rice at Hotel Carolina, it was back on the road to Heredia. One cool thing that happened in town: a golden warbler (in its winter home, away from the US) landed on my spare and started tapping on the glass, drinking the droplets speckling the windshield. I loved catching a glimpse of this guy; as I see it often at home, I felt like I had a wingman after a week on my own.

IMG_1776 Main street through Puerto Jimenez, outside the Hotel Carolina

IMG_4373 Golden warbler on my rear windshield!

This post is way too long, now, so I’m going to wind it up. We’re going to stay in Agujitas, that’s certain. We’re close to arranging a house, but that’s still formally up in the air! As is finding a school for the kids, and renting out our own house, and getting research permits in order… so stay tuned.

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One response to “Sabbatical reconnaissance part 2: hunting for a home in the jungle

  1. Pingback: On your mark… | Acadammit!·

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