We had made the long, hot drive from Liberia to Playa Grande, located on Costa Rica’s blistering Pacific coast.
Martin made all arrangements for this trip, and every lodging – every single one – was down a minimum of six miles of dusty, rock-strewn roads. Seriously! A minimum of six miles. No sissy paved roads for him, no sir! No gleaming high-rise hotels, no swanky condominiums. We would turn off the pavement onto bone-rattling, pot-holed roads, kicking up dust, and I’d settle in for six miles – or more, often it was much, much more – of bumping and jouncing.
Martin had it all planned out.
But our small, welcoming hotel in Playa Grande was a little piece of paradise. It had pretty green gardens, a sparkling blue swimming pool, a brightly-painted patio and private hammock for each room, and two sweet and friendly dogs.
We also discovered that paradise comes with ants. As Martin and I dropped our bags in the room, we noticed a scattering of red ants making forays across the bathroom floor. I don’t mind spiders on the wall or a few ants on the counter, as long as they stayed out of our luggage and away from us. I hoped they understood the rules.
Sweaty and sticky in Playa Grande’s heat, we needed to find the beach. Across the dirt road was a short path leading through the dry forest to the Pacific Ocean. We were desperate to reach the water, but also enthralled by the new birds in this new habitat. We would not find any of our must-see, Holy Grail birds here – a Quetzal, Toucan and Macaw – but as we inched along the path, we stopped to collect one life-lister after another flitting through the trees– an Orange-fronted Parakeet! A Streak-backed Oriole! A White-throated Magpie Jay! A White-fronted Parrot!
This is how it is for us. Anyone else’s five-minute walk takes us an hour.
Martin and Dakota were very nearly giving themselves whiplash as they spun about in a tight circle to watch one bird, then twisting themselves to see another, craning their necks this way, whipping around at the other’s excited shout that way. They trained binoculars upwards at severe and impossible angles one moment, then careened downwards to follow a bird’s swooping flight the next. Both stamped hard patches in the dust as they turned and turned and turned in circles, binoculars up, exclamations flowing freely.
I tried to keep up, but could only glimpse a fraction of the birds. I’m just not the expert birder that they are. Usually the conversation went like this:
Carol, searching the tangle of trees: “Where? What bird?”
Martin and Dakota: “Right there, up in that tree! Sitting on the big branch! See it?”
Carol: “There are a lot of trees with big branches! Which one?”
Martin and Dakota: “That tree right there, next to that other tree! See the big branch? Oh, it just flew!”
Carol: “What bird just flew?”
Martin and Dakota, turning to me, amazed: “Didn’t you see it? The Purple Extra-Crested Super-Sassy Hoho Bird? That huge pink-and-green bird with the bright purple double mohawk on its head and the long yellow tail? The one with the zebra-striped bill! You must have seen it, it was right there!”
No, I did not see the Purple Extra-Crested Super-Sassy Hoho Bird.
I think they totally make up half the birds anyway. They glimpse a rustling leaf and suddenly describe some outlandishly colorful bird they’d “seen.” And then, of course, be utterly unable to point it out to me afterwards. Dubious, right? How could I have missed that bird?
Probably because it was never there. Go ahead, try looking it up in a bird book, see whatcha get.
I suspect that one of them makes up some crazy bird, and the other, not to be left behind in the bird-count competition, eagerly claims that yes yes, he saw it, too!
We eventually came out onto the huge expanse of lovely beach, broad and smooth and clean, stretching far in either direction, virtually empty. We played and splashed in the warm waves, then wandered towards the mouth of the river.
The touristy town of Tamarindo lay on the far side, the beach choked with people, beach blankets, umbrellas and coolers. Visitors crowded the surf, shrieking and laughing. Music blared. Restaurants strung with colorful lights marched down the beach.
Martin and Dakota were keeping an eye out for Dark-Eyed Double-Breasted Mattress Thrashers, but so was I. I was going to shoo all of those away.
Our side was quiet and empty: A broad sweep of white beach, littered with corkscrew seashells, living sand dollars, and sea snails washing gently in the surf.
Above us, the skies were filled with wheeling, plummeting, diving pelicans.
Near the river’s mouth on a sandy dune, we discovered a Yellow-bellied Sea Snake with a vertical tail tip.
I watched it struggle unsuccessfully to move across the sand, and started to worry. You’d think a snake wouldn’t have to work so hard to navigate its environment. Besides, it was a sea snake. Not a sand snake.
I suddenly decided it needed to get back into the water, and I was going to help it.
Martin and Dakota sometimes accuse me of micromanagement — just hang on a minute while I move this snake into the water over there, where I think it needs to be.
I portaged the snake, carefully draped over a long stick, to the river’s mouth, where it fairly catapulted itself into the sea. You could feel its relief. It took a few luxurious strokes towards the open ocean, then dove down out of sight, disappearing into the murky depths.
We later read that sea snakes are unable to slither across sand, and will die if stranded out of water. I’m so glad I saved that snake! Yes, it’s venomous. Yes, people were in the water. But Yellow-bellied sea snakes rarely strike. They deserve to live, too.
So life teemed in Playa Grande: Pelicans in the skies above, snakes in the waters below, and sand dollars along the shore.
Life teemed in our hotel room as well.
As we prepared to get into bed, we noted uneasily that the numbers of red ants had increased. Bolder and more numerous, they spread out across the bedroom floor… and up onto counters… and over the bedside table… and yes, were exploring the very bed upon which we would be sleeping. Red ants made forays across the expanse of white sheets. We brushed them off apprehensively.
It is very disconcerting to lie down in a bed that was literally crawling with large red ants only moments before.
Go ahead, go to sleep, knowing that tropical ants are actively exploring the bed upon which you repose. Relax, go to sleep, knowing that ants might march into your ear or suddenly bite you in a tender spot during the night. Go on, go to sleep, wondering if your hot and sticky body might attract more ants as you lie sleeping, wondering if you might awaken to find yourself buried under a teeming, thriving swarm.
Go ahead! Try to relax and go to sleep. See how it goes for you.
Dakota, being the smart guy he is, immediately elected to sleep outside, nicely cocooned in the softly rocking hammock, safely up off the ground.
Guess who slept better?