Playa Grande: Navigating Our Way

To read my Costa Rica journal from the beginning, click here.

We needed money for the turtle-viewing tour later that evening, so we were headed to Tamarindo. Martin was driving; Dakota was navigating.

That was the problem, right there.

Dakota prides himself on a special sixth sense, an infamous and supposedly flawless sense of direction. Maps? GPS? Directions from anyone or anything? Dakota eschews them all in favor of the tingling of his neck hairs, a little whispered voice inside that says, “Turn here!” and his alleged ability to tap into the earth’s magnetic field and feel his way.

We could have just followed the main road. Yes, it was maddening to see Tamarindo right there, across the river, and then have to drive fifteen or twenty miles around to cross the bridge. We could have taken a water taxi over, but we weren’t sure where we would be dumped off in relation to where we wanted to be.

Hint: Take the water taxi from Playa Grande to Tamarindo. Doesn’t matter where in Tamarindo you’re going – it’s faster.

But we had decided to drive, and Dakota was navigating. So I wasn’t surprised when Dakota suddenly chirped, “Let’s take a short cut! Quick, here – turn right!”

I held on as Martin careened gamely off the paved highway and onto a dirt road. We jounced down the road which steadily deteriorated. “Turn left!” Dakota would confidently say. I eyed the worsening road. Could this rocky road really lead to the well-traveled bridge?

“Okay, now right!” Dakota sang, and Martin happily swung the wheel.

We drove past ramshackle houses, past Costa Ricans who turned to stare at us in wonder. And why not? It was probably the first time that any crazy tourists had bounced down those crazy back roads. We smiled confidently and raised our hand in greeting as if we knew exactly where we were. No worries, we got this! I grew more doubtful as the road narrowed, and eventually turned into a rutted little dirt track, looking suspiciously like a path used exclusively by pedestrians and the occasional donkey.

Finally the road (the word is used very, very loosely) plunged into some trees. Martin stopped the SUV. “Nope, that’s it,” he announced, putting the truck in reverse.

“What do you mean?” Dakota protested. “We can navigate that! I see tire tracks!”

“Yeah, bicycle tires,” Martin said flatly to his navigator – I mean, his ex-navigator.

We managed to turn around and retrace our way, bashfully passing all the Costa Ricans we’d seen previously. They were grinning at us, undoubtedly thinking, “Yep, there you are! We knew you’d be back!”

Via the paved highway, we made it to Tamarindo, a crowded, touristy town. People swarmed like locusts through all the souvenir junk shops. Shopkeepers stood in doorways trying to get you into their shop – accosting you, shouting cheerfully at you, grabbing at you. Come in, cheap prices, buy here!

I like quiet, natural settings where you can breathe the air and see the wildlife. This was not it.

Martin and I needed to exchange U.S. dollars for Costa Rican colones, so Dakota and I hopped out near an ATM while Martin drove around the block. Traffic was crazy, with honking cars, trucks stopped in the road at unexpected angles, motorbikes zipping wildly through traffic, and pedestrians darting dangerously across the street. There were no parking places. So Martin drove around and around through the mayhem.

I guess he could have just parked at some crazy angle in the middle of the street, like everyone else.

I had no feel for the currency’s exchange rate. A hamburger costs 5,000 colones? What the hell is that? So I asked Dakota how much he took out upon arriving at the airport. Maybe he could help me navigate this bewildering exchange rate.

“Oh,” he said breezily, “I withdrew, let’s see, maybe $2,000,000?”

Two million colones? Gosh, that sounded like an awful lot, but then so does 5,000 colones for a hamburger. Trusting my navigator, I punched $2,000,000 into the ATM. It refused me.

$1,000,000? No, still over the allowable limit, whatever that was. $500,000? No.

I had no idea how much I was taking out, just that I needed colones. The ATM finally agreed to give me 100,000 colones which, when Dakota and I finally did the math, was actually $200. And that two million colones that he was urging me to withdraw? Yeah, that would be $4,000! I’m glad at least the ATM had some sense!

For the second time that day, Dakota was unequivocally declared an ex-navigator.

That night we presented ourselves at Las Baulas National Park in Playa Grande for the Leatherback turtle tour. A major reason we’d come to Playa Grande was to see Leatherback turtles, an ancient species which has survived since the time of dinosaurs.

Their forebears rubbed elbows with dinosaurs! That just really appeals to me.

I am such a five-year-old.

At night, female Leatherbacks emerge quietly from the water, drag their massive bulk through the sand, dig a hole in a trance-like state, lay their eggs, and slip silently back into the sea.

It would be amazing to witness. I would be jumping up and down, wanting to throw my arms around the enormous turtle and kiss her scaly nose.

I’m guessing that kissing the turtle would be against the rules, though.

We were ushered into a room and given a Power Point presentation. Leatherback turtle populations are stable on the Atlantic Ocean side, but crashing on the Pacific Ocean side. One problem is that bright lights confuse them, drive them away, prevent them from going into their trance and quietly laying their eggs. I thought resentfully of Tamarindo, the entire beach aglow with brightly blazing restaurants, flashing neon signs, and candlelit tables positioned far out onto the sand, not to mention boisterous partygoers gathered around raging bonfires at night. Thank goodness for quiet Playa Grande, which deliberately hides its lights from the sea and explicitly forbids hotels along the beach. It is a small, welcoming haven for the Leatherbacks.

We were told that we would wait here. Someone was in hiding at the beach, quietly watching for a Leatherback. If a turtle showed up, we would all go out and watch her. Until then, we’d just sit around and wait until, oh, say 2:30 AM.

Martin, Dakota and I looked at each other in some alarm. 2:30 AM? We might sit here until 2:30 AM? And we may, or may not, see a Leatherback?

Uh, no.

I don’t think so. I am not a 2:30 AM kind of girl, not even if they promise I can kiss the turtle.

We were willing to wait a little while. Who knows, perhaps a Leatherback was right now, at this very moment, quietly hauling herself out of the waves and up the sandy shore. We would wait as long as could.

And so we hung out… walked up and down the sidewalk… sat on a bench… watched geckos on the walls… blinked sleepily… waited… nodded woozily… waited some more…

It was only 11 PM, but it was way past my bedtime. Call us wimps, but we decided to return to the hotel. We’d had a lot of heat and sun, we were tired and slightly headachy, Martin and I hadn’t slept well in days, and we’d be getting up early tomorrow to head to Monteverde.

It was another bad night for sleeping. I was exhausted, but felt tense and edgy. The lights in our bedroom were dim to the point of uselessness, so we had to use flashlights to paw through our bags. There was no hot water, so I had to use cold water to wash my face. And I was understandably anxious about all the red ants scurrying about the bathroom, across the floors, and onto our very bed. None bit us last night, true, but would tonight’s ants know that? The room was hot; the fan roared loudly overhead.

I had anxiety dreams that night. Maybe I was thirsty, because I dreamed, over and over, that I was drinking tall glasses of cool tap water. All the travel guides emphasize that one should only drink bottled water in Central America to avoid possible diarrhea. In my dream, I would realize with alarm that I was drinking tap water, I wasn’t supposed to drink tap water! I would hastily pour it all out, only to find myself greedily guzzling another tall glass.

It was a very restless night.

Dakota slept soundly outside in the cool air, comfortably cosseted in his hammock, safely away from raiding ants, clutching his chilled bottled water.

He is truly an expert at navigating his way through life.

1 Comment Playa Grande: Navigating Our Way

  1. Pingback: Monteverde: Feeling the Strain - Carol Beebee

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