After visiting Costa Rica last November, I settled on the town of Agujitas for my family’s sabbatical home. This pueblito, population ~250, is situated on Bahía Drake, on the Osa Peninsula, on the Southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Agujitas is the namesake of the river that empties into the bay at its southern end. That river is much smaller (as will be obvious to the hispanohablante) than the Agujas, whose mouth is 4 km away to the north along the rough sand of a shell-and-coral beach. The local airstrip spins of at a tangent to the Agujas just as the stream creeps into the Pacific. The Agujas is named for the needlefish that used to chase the flowtide up its channel. There are still Aguja to be hooked in the bay, as my friend Michael found when he recently brought his family down to visit us. He hauled in a wriggling lightning bolt: beautiful to look on and let go, as we did with Liam’s Black Tuna and Ines’ Crevalle Jack. Luckily Alec brought in a 3 kilo Pargo Colorado… but those tacos de pargo are another story. Over the past few decades, the Aguja’s numbers have declined from what I imagine was an army of meter-long silver needles pointing upriver as though the river’s teeming minnows were a kind of lodestone, the prey drawing the predator.
When you arrive in the town of Agujitas, whether by car, bus, boat, or plane, you are deposited in the plaza: a beachside conjunction of the main road and the half-kilometer beach boulevard. It’s a busy spot, for all that these are just a pair rough dirt tracks; the little lanchas servicing the further-afield hotels stop there to pick up guests and resupply. For that reason, all the provisioners’ trucks find their way to the plaza, as well: Eduardo the small-scale verduras guy; the Tres Jotas meat truck; various general supply houses that amount to a Costco on wheels, with doors opening to reveal mattresses, propane tanks, 50 kilo sacks of rice, 20 liter pilones of purified water. Once they unloaded a furniture set in the school courtyard, I mean an entire household… beds, kitchen tables, sofas, night stands… all to be loaded up again before the truck rumbled off to the next outpost.
Our favorite batido place, the Cocina El Pirata Drake, is prime plaza real estate. Looking out at the arriving boats while we sip guanabana en leche, the best spot is the palapa just outside the gate… it’s dustier than other tables, with motorcycles, ATV’s, and other vehicles frequently stirring the road. But the sweetest breeze blows through there, while other tables, blocked by one slapdash shack or another, can be stifling. So after school, the kids and I stake out that spot, scowling at tourists until they vacate our bench. Then we’re savoring the sand grain-sized chunks of ice thickening our drinks, watching captains and crew wrestle their boats in the weak surf, as the dry goods, crates of eggs, suitcases, backpacks, and bags of snorkel gear pile up just beyond the lapping waves. We watch the tourists and locals waiting for their boats, as the materiel is wedged in before them.
The tourists are headed for high-end hotels even more remote than this little town, but the locals use the boats as well, making their way to ground transport to be found at yet another river, the Sierpe, still farther to the north than the Aguja. El Pirata has great drinks, nachos with fresh-fried corn tortillas, but best of all is the family that owns it. Lidia and her husband Luis, and their two daughters, all working in an 2mx2m kitchen. When we pull up stakes here, I will miss their sweet, indulgent smiles. They help my kids practice their español, and bring them pipa fresh cut from the beachside palms. They only take cash, but I love that place so much that our hoarded colones are rationed according to how many days-worth of batidos I can buy before the next trip to Sierpe… there are no ATMs in Drake Bay.
But back to the rivers. The rio Agujitas is easy to access from my house. Follow the road out of town that leads east to Los Planes, 8km away. About a kilometer along, you’ll find our house – “la casa con techo verde,” I tell drivers, or “la casa de Erick”. Erick is the brother of Emilio, who manages the property, and the son of Emiliano, my boat captain/owner. But keep going, past our place. Again, the road is a dusty, unpaved thing, and you dodge those motorcylces, ATVs, supply trucks, and the occasional tourist transport along its winding way. This is the hard part… hiking the next kilometer as the sun hammers down. But after 10-15 minutes, and a turn down an even rougher track, a trail peels off to the right, diving immediately and deeply into forest:
Here Ines dismounts from your shoulders. You have given in to her for two reasons: first, she won’t really want to make the walk if she’s got to negotiate the melting way on her on two flip-flopped feet; second, she will only be small enough to ride your shoulders for one more year, maybe two, so you sure as shit better relish every popsicle stick in the ear, every sandy-sodden swimsuit straddling your neck. Your personal favorite is when you’re strolling at night, say at 8:30 after a bug/frog/spider hike, and you know Ines has fallen asleep as her little chin cracks repeatedly into the crown of your skull. You put a hand up on her back to steady her, and keep walking.
But when the trail leaves the road, she’s good to go, and we march down the footpath to the Pijagua. It descends rapidly from ridge to river bottom. So familiar has the stroll become, the kids now remind me to watch out for that ant nest, or to take a closer look at that mossy bank for trapdoor spiders. And they love to stop at the defunct zipline platforms, always hunting for arthropods of any subphylum or class, and stand bravely at the broken railings, looking down at the forest spreading below them. “No, don’t hold my hand. I’ll do it myself.” Still, I constantly remind them not to grab roots and branches for balance, or anything else, as I’m sure they all support vipers… and some actually do.
Finally, on the gravelly river bank of the tiny Pijagua, we shuck flips, pull on swim shirts, and splash into the closest pool. Joy reminds us all that, when we went for a night hike a week ago, we saw 5 fer-de-lance here on this very bank. For now, it’s still daylight and the only animals on the bank are dozens of tiny frogs… cane toad babies, I’m told, and they leap ahead of every footfall. Joy moves, slow and shivering, into the river, but I submerge straight away. And as I stretch out lengthwise in the pool, leaning my head back to cool my burning scalp, the river is transformed into a dreamland. The kids become naiads, Oscar’s favorite game, and practice their “agua control”. Ines dons her snorkeling mask, and immediately discovers that the river is full of fish. Of course, I want to study the fish closely, but Ines is off, zig-zaging up and down the pool, chittering nonstop to herself in an unknown, nowhighnowlow fantasy, while Oscar’s nature spirit self aggregates more and more powers unto itself, whipping the water and stirring silt.
We have found other, deeper, holes farther up the Pijagua, but this is our go-to. Minimal investment, but such great dividends, as coati and tayra cross the river on a fallen log that reaches across the river over our heads. Kingfishers and morphos flash by regularly, but their darting, fleeting appearances frustrate all my attempts at ‘serious photography’. And we’re always alert for the swish of leaves and crash of branches that mark the passage of a troupe of monkeys… today it’s howlers, but tomorrow it might be spiders or capuchins… we’re unlikely to see squirrel monkeys here – their diet is pretty specialized, and is usually satisfied deeper in the forest.
Downstream, our river – a creek really – flows into the Agujitas itself. I’ve yet to follow this down to the bay, scarcely a kilometer and a half as the scarlet macaw flies, that distance is trebled by the river’s foldings and turnings. I’ve got to do that hike before we go, but the kids have been forbidden to swim that stretch, as we’ve seen 6-foot crocodiles sweeping through the murk at the rivermouth. But for now, today, we cross the Pijagua, then cross the Agujitas, and climb the steep bank up to don Emilio’s orchard. Here he’s got 50 hectares of bananas, plantains, and cacao. Leaf cutter highways crisscross the forest floor. We stop to find all the different castes, a two-centimeter militant with pincers gaping as we prod her with a twig. And we hunt for all the stages of cacao, from tiny flowers budding straight from the trunk, to fruit rotting where it hangs. It strikes me, seeing that decaying pod, that the fermentation, one of the keys to the process that is chocolate, wouldn’t have been hard to stumble on here where decay reigns hand in hand with fecundity. But the real action is at the end of a somewhat sinuous row of banana trees, pendulous with fruit, colors ranging from bright green to deep yellow, just tinged with brown. On this particular day Oscar, Ines, and I are joined by the Michael and his kids (I think Joy and Laura have their own adventure today), and everybody forgets the heat for a few minutes while we munch perfect bananas, nestled in the winding buttresses of a 30 meter Ceiba. Flavor takes over my mind for a moment, but I always have to look in from the outside, and I think I may never have tasted a banana this good, and I am so glad Michael and his kids are here to eat with us, since it’s really his off-the-cuff career advice over beers last summer that started us down the trail leading to this produce stand in the bosque.
Back at home, a downpour is coming, and lighting flashes occasionally behind purple bulking clouds. This is a rainforest, which has a technical definition, but here in the year’s driest month it means storms, frequently threatening, rarely manifesting, and quickly dissipating. For 30 minutes or an hour, rain hammers the aluminum roof, the sky’s speech multiplied and translated and drowning out all conversation. One just eases into the hammock and listens, watching the leaves shiver and dance. After it’s all over, we hike back down the road to town to Heladeria Popis for a cold one which, as it requires another tromp through the rain’s sweating, misty aftermath, we must truly want.
I guess there’s no lesson here. No insight. Not that I’m trying to avoid those. For now, the place is the thing. It’s enough to just experience the best this place has to offer, without worrying about what it’s not giving me. What it gives without reference to what I need.
I think I’ll add photos later, but for now I’m just enjoying the mind’s-eye view. Maybe you will, too?