White Sand, Brown Pelicans, and Our Daily Walk to Nowhere
On our last weekend in Costa Rica we walk down to Bihagua from Heliconias Lodge to catch a bus to the small city of Liberia. Our actual destination is the remote northern section of Santa Rosa National Park and we’ll need to rent a car to get there.
After standing in the aisle for a couple of hours on the packed bus, the four of us disembark and walk along a busy highway to rent a small SUV. It feels odd and slightly sinful to be traveling by ourselves in a new, air-conditioned vehicle but we are now adding a fair amount of cash to the Costa Rican economy, especially after we stop at a grocery store to load up on food.
The Santa Rosa National Park fills the northeast corner of Costa Rica and the section we’ll visit is only accessible by four-wheel drive vehicles. We head north on Route One and turn west just before the border with Nicaragua. The road winds down a long hill and the pavement ends at a small village. A dirt road leads west past a long pasture that was a secret U.S. airstrip in the 1980s when Oliver North led a covert war in Nicaragua. The creepy factor is high as we drive by.
After fording a couple of wide streams we find ourselves at a small gate and the entrance to the national park. A friendly ranger with limited English greets us, takes our entrance fee ,and shows us a map. Yes, all the beaches are beautiful. Yes, the road is bad but fine with our car and no, there is no camping on the beaches, only here, at this campground.
Off we go, skidding up a steep hill and crashing through branches and vines that hang into the road. Progress is slow and we are all grateful after a few kilometers to turn off at a beach. We kick off our shoes and shirts and wade into the warm water, surrounded by an arc of mountains and not a single sign of human life. This is the tropical paradise usually only seen in magazine ads so we take several minutes to float around in an awestruck silence. Back on land hermit crabs make us laugh as they race around in their salvaged shell homes.
Then, after another thirty minutes of a bone-jarring drive we make it to the end of the peninsula. La Playa Blanca is even more beautiful than the first beach. A long stretch of fine white sand faces the open Pacific, with a few scenic rocky islands adding to the view. Pelicans bob on the water, now and then lifting off to soar up and dive straight down into the ocean, an elegant ballet for birds that are usually given the comic roles.
This beach isn’t entirely ours. One group has set up for the day with chairs and a boom box. It doesn’t take much though to walk past their party and we go in and out of the water, cooling off every few minutes as we walk down the beach. We find the carcass of a sea turtle, its huge shell still strong. More hermit crabs scurry across the firm sand. As the sun sets we watch its orange orb sink into the ocean.
We sleep well at the little campground until the howler monkey alarm clock at dawn. The monkeys aren’t large but their voices sure are, loud enough to sound like an army of gorillas is approaching rather than a family of howlers sitting in a tree. One of the females has a baby clinging to her chest as she leaps from branch to branch and there’s also a kid monkey jumping around with her. I get a crick in my neck from staring at them for so long.
Before we return to a beach we decide to climb up into the dry hills. We follow a side road and it is so steep it is like walking up a dry rocky waterfall. The vegetation is sparse – small trees with waxy leaves and very little undergrowth on the crumbly soil. This is the beginning of the dry season and the ranger told us it won’t rain again until May. What a difference from the rainforest not far away.
Of course we have to get to the top of the ridge and although it looks like it will be an easy bushwhack from the road, sharp rocks hide under the rough grass. It is worth the trouble when we reach the summit and can look out onto a range of small mountains and the ocean on three sides. In this protected area there are no houses or cows, although we scare up a herd of whitetail deer. They seem strange in this place of monkeys and pelicans but they are natives too.
It’s hot by the time we hike back to the car and time to go to Playa Blanca one more time. We’re getting used to the road and in half an hour we’re running into the surf again, happy sunburned gringos. We have time for one more walk to nowhere and it’s low tide, so we head down the beach with our shoes in our hands. When the white sand runs out we tie up our sneakers and step along the rocks, hoping to discover a hidden beach around the corner.
Walking on the slippery rocks is slow but we eventually go far enough to find a little cove tucked under a cliff. So many pelicans are sitting on the rocks that I think it must be a rookery but as they fly up and swoop into the water I realize they are hunting a school of little fish trapped in the pocket of water. We join the fish and Pelicans for a swim, dry off and begin the long walk back to the car.
As I walk I think about the Costa Ricans who have preserved this corner of the world and are trying to reconstruct a migratory landscape from the ocean to the top of a nearby volcano. It will be years before the cut-over land (previously used to grow beef cattle for American fast food burgers) at the base of the volcano returns to native forest but the process is beginning. From this pristine beach the world looks hopeful.