Outside magazine, June 1996
On my return to what was once the best place in the world, I was reminded of an elemental dilemma that attends anyone who seeks out remote, unspoiled places and then writes about them for profit--a carrion feeder's ethic that has motivated me and others to foul our own nests more than once. It might have been Western Australia, or it might have been Borneo, or it might have been a variety of other small, private places, but it happened to be Costa Rica, where the reminder first came in the form of a noxious little shyster who wore the blue uniform of that tiny country's transit police.
His name was Barrantes. He wore mirrored sunglasses. His swagger insinuated a yearning for the firearm he was not allowed to carry. He moved slowly, very, very slowly. His authority mandated that my time was his time; it was his small power to wield.
He approached my rental car, slapping a little citation booklet against his hand. He gave me a look--contempt, perhaps?--before informing me in Spanish that his radar gun had clocked my speed at 80 kilometers per hour in a 60-kph zone.
His mood didn't improve when I told him my Spanish wasn't very good.
"Eighty kilometers an hour!" he said. "You don't understand that?"
Well, yeah, I did. But why was this twerp hollering at me? Maybe it was true that I had been doing the equivalent of 48 miles per hour in a 36-mph zone, but it was also true that I had been driving on a busy three-lane highway and was being passed by other cars when I topped the ridge and saw Barrantes standing on the curb, aiming his radar gun. Yet mine was the only car he had flagged.
"You want trouble? You have big trouble!" The guy was leaning into the car window, lecturing me in English. "You pay fine now. Pay now or I arrest you maybe!"
Gad! Was I in Costa Rica or back in Cuba? Or maybe Mexico, where a federale shakedown is budgeted into every trip? When one travels a lot, the mind sometimes blurs.
I took a look around: tropical mountains hazed with blue, coffee bushes hedge-neat on hillsides, houses roofed with red tile. Nope, this was definitely Costa Rica.
"You don't pay, we go back to San Jos‹!" Infuriated by my silence, Barrantes was now leveraging me with threats.
I shook my head. Nope, I wasn't going to hand over American dollars. I'd take the ticket and pay later.
Barrantes slapped his hand with the citation booklet a final time. "You big trouble!" Then he sauntered back to his vehicle, letting me know through body language that he would keep me waiting as long as he could.
With me in the car was my 15-year-old son, Lee. I turned and asked, "What'd I do to make him so mad?"
"It's because we're in a rental car," said Lee. "Don't you remember what Bayardo told us? They like to stop rental cars." The voice of calm and reason from a calmer, more reasonable person, and he was right.
Bayardo had warned me--Bayardo Orochena, a Nicaraguan national who was manager of San Jos‹'s Hotel Balmoral. Bayardo was an old buddy of mine and had watched my infant sons grow to childhood during our annual visits to Costa Rica. I had written about the astonishing flora and fauna of this West Virginia-size country and the friendliness of its people, had marveled in print at a place where one could watch howler monkeys on the Pacific coast in the morning and quetzals in the cloud forest at noon and still arrive in the Caribbean lowlands in time to see a three-toed sloth or an American crocodile. As I and many other writers and photographers discovered early on, the natural wealth of Costa Rica was an indulgence that could be had for the price of sharing it.
"Why's he taking so long?" Lee was getting restless. It had been more than seven years since we had been to Costa Rica, and it was our plan to revisit our favorite place, the place where our family had spent so much time. Sitting in the sweltering heat and the wind-wake of passing cars wasn't supposed to be part of the plan.
I could see Barrantes in the rearview mirror, loitering with another officer, the partially finished ticket clasped in his hand. Years earlier I had written, "Put these kindly Costa Ricans behind the wheel of a car and they become aggressive, wild, filled with a crazy faith in life after death."
It was true. Costa Rica had once been a world leader in traffic fatalities. Because road carnage and the publicity it generated was bad for tourism, the Policia de Transito had been created to snuff out the problem. Soon I would learn that the PDT's greed and corruption are symptomatic of other problems that have gradually moved in to fill the void.
To Lee, I said, "He thinks that if he waits here long enough, I'll pay him. He wants a bribe."
"The guy's a jerk."
"Did you ever have to do that before?"
I answered, "Pay bribes? In other places. Not here. Never here."
The best place in the world was where Bern, the cook, died unexpectedly in the night. By the time the Cessna landed to mule him out, he was so stiff that we had to lever his body into the front seat and leave the door slightly ajar for an arm that refused to bend. As the airplane taxied away, it appeared that Bern was waving farewell to us, a cavalier gesture that was very much in character.
The best place in the world was where Jesus, with his crippled hand, led my toddler sons through a tunnel of pandanus palms and mangoes in search of iguanas. It was where pretty Marielena, in her flowered skirt, oiled the black wood of the ranch house porch every morning and brought me avocado sandwiches or bottles of cold Tropical beer anytime I wanted.
It was where we had to saddle roping ponies and ride two miles of deserted beach to buy lobster in the village of Tambor or to hang out at Momo's Bar in Pochote. It was where I could sit quietly and read while my auburn-haired wife slept in a wide hammock, a blond son and a red-headed son curled beneath each arm. It was where the jungle met the sea, a place where, summer after summer, I could be alone with my loves and watch them change against the backdrop of rain-tree green and Pacific gray that were the colors of an unchanging Costa Rica.
The best place in the world had a name. It was La Hacienda, a cattle ranch on the Peninsula of Nicoya, fronting BahŒa Ballena, the Bay of Whales.
Most of my lucky travel discoveries have resulted from misadventure, a poor sense of geography, and blind good fortune. La Hacienda was no different. I was staying in San Jos‹ with my wife, Debra, and Lee, who was then two, and we decided to roam. We took a bus to the dirty port town of Puntarenas, where we saw an ad for a boat tour. We got on the boat. It was a blustery day, and a guy on board was smoking a cigar. My pregnant wife got sick. Lee got queasy. I had the skipper drop us off at the closest landfall--the village of Paquera. I believed that we could find a bus to take us back to San Jos‹. The villagers chuckled at me as I made inquiries. Had I not looked at a map?
What I found was a man who introduced himself as Bayardo Orochena. Bayardo had come with a stake-bed truck to carry supplies from the ferry. He told me that he was managing a cattle ranch that sometimes doubled as an inn and that he would gladly take us there--if we didn't mind riding in the back of his truck.
We rode for nearly an hour over mud trails, crabbing our way up and down hills, past little villages where bird-of-paradise plants and parrots grew wild. Finally we mounted a ridge. Below were coconut palms growing on a strand of black beach that abutted pasturelands on the Pacific. We turned toward the sea, and I got my first look at La Hacienda.
Years ago, I wrote about it: "The main house is constructed of heavy wood and red tile, with broad porches and hammocks on grounds so perfectly kept that it is as if someone has transported a botanical garden to the seventh fairway of Augusta Country Club. There are hedges of hibiscus in big red bloom where hummingbirds compete with bees. Everywhere else you look there is nothing but water and jungle and beach. It is a cattle ranch with ocean at its front and mountains at its back."
My family and I planned to stay a night. We stayed a week. It was embarrassingly inexpensive. We went back every summer after that. Rarely were there any other guests. In the mornings my wife, a gifted runner, would vanish down the beach. I would head the opposite way on horseback, my fly rod braced against my thigh like a Winchester.
I got to know Bern, the German cook, who beat me regularly at chess right up until the day the Cessna came to fetch him. Jesus became a favorite of my sons, Marielena became a favorite of us all, and I became buddies with Momo, owner of Momo's Bar, and spent more than one afternoon trying to teach him how to juggle.
What I remember best is how Marielena and the other women would all sob when we left La Hacienda, reaching to stroke the soft hair of our sons.
While others wrote about the cloud forests of Monte Verde or the turtles of Tortuguero or the volcanoes of northern Costa Rica, I wrote about the Peninsula of Nicoya. My rationalization was also a truth: I was sharing. That is the small conceit and larger dishonesty embraced by people who do what I do.
So it had been seven years. Because of busy schedules, we missed a summer at La Hacienda, and another summer. Then, when I called, I was told that the ranch was no longer open to paying guests. It was a surprising thing to hear.
Finally, I tracked down Bayardo. His intellect and his gift for business had catapulted him from ranch manager to manager of the comfortable Hotel Balmoral in downtown San Jos‹. He told me that La Hacienda had been sold to a Spanish conglomerate that planned to build a new resort on the Bay of Whales.
"Maybe it will happen, maybe it won't," he said. "Even if it does, I have other places for us to go. Places just as pretty. Costa Rica is still one of the most beautiful countries in the world."
That much was true, even seven years later. The only thing different that I noticed as Lee and I drove from San Jos‹ through mountains and green valleys was the marked increase in traffic. In recent years, Costa Rica has become a hot ticket for travelers from the United States and Europe. Ecotourism has joined coffee as the country's primary cash cow. We heard a lot more English spoken--and German, too. We saw a lot more signs hawking rafting trips and fishing excursions and birding tours. The pace of the place had quickened, become more competitive, and some of the locals we met and re-met had been changed by it.
The shyster transit cop was an extreme example, but avarice is tourism's ugly stepchild. (When I paid the ticket back in San Jos‹, the rental car company charged me an attorney fee--their own little chunk of the extortion business.)
Puntarenas was still cheerful and dirty. We drove onto the ferry and, an hour later, exited onto the Peninsula of Nicoya and the village of Paquera. Much of the road to Tambor had been paved. It was a much quicker trip, though it seemed longer because I was confused by all the changes. There were houses now--not many, but a few--big houses on hillsides that had the flavor of overseas money.
We topped a ridge, and suddenly I could see the Bay of Whales: jungled bluffs rising out of a gray sea.
"That's what I remember," Lee said. "How pretty it is."
That's what I remembered, too. Even so, we were nearly to Tambor before I realized that I had completely missed the entrance to La Hacienda. We backtracked. I still couldn't find it. Off to the right was a wide cement driveway and a little guardhouse. A sign read, BARCELO PLAYA TAMBOR BEACH RESORT.
I pulled in, and the guard told me what I already suspected: This was the entrance. Could we drive in and look around? No, but if we were interested in staying at the resort, he could radio the main office and ask permission for us to go in and speak with a clerk.
"You want to stay?"
"It's pretty nice."
"I'll go register. After that, anything you want to eat, anything you want to use, just ask for it. The price includes it all."
That afternoon, in a misting drizzle, I walked the beach and found La Hacienda. The windows had been boarded and plugged with air conditioning units. The hammocks were gone; the black wood of the porch was scuffed raw. It was now housing for resort employees.
I stood there staring, feeling the rain, feeling proportionately reduced by the perception that it seemed smaller. It was naive to believe that my stories had caused the destruction of this remote place. Mine was but one small voice in a larger chorus, yet I had participated in the process, and it was not a pleasant thing to concede. There is an issue that we who do what we do prefer to disregard: Too often we diminish the places we most love.
We can brandish rationalizations, we can even cling to the truth that sometimes we also contribute in certain ways to the protection and economic well-being of fragile regions. Even so, the dilemma remains. This might have been Western Australia, or it might have been Borneo, or it might have been any of the dozens of far-flung places that I've enjoyed privately and helped make
public, but it wasn't. This was my place, La Hacienda.
It was Marielena, though it was a long moment before I realized it. She wore the white uniform of kitchen help and a net over her hair. She had gained 20-some pounds. Like me, she had aged.
First, we shook hands; then we hugged, but briefly, very briefly. Hers was the nervous reserve of someone not permitted to fraternize with customers. She kept glancing over her shoulder as if someone might see us. It was not easy to get her to talk, but I wanted to know what had happened, who was where.
Familiar names were spoken in a rush: Jesus, she said, was now a gardener for a rich man on the mainland. His brother, Fidel, was a waiter at Playa Tambor--perhaps he would wait on me tonight! Beautiful Daisy, the teenager who wore the hibiscus in her hair and helped with the floors, was gone; she didn't know where. But Momo still owned his bar, although he quit drinking several years ago.
"He now drives a beautiful gold car," Marielena told me, wondering if she should be impressed.
It was a Range Rover. I would see it the next night when I drove to Pochote. Momo would take one look at me and begin to juggle invisible balls in the air.
"And what about your wife and your two sons?" Marielena's question was sincere, but she was also anxious for me to be gone, eager for the distance that her position now required.
I thought of Lee and told her that I had a surprise for her--but tomorrow, at the resort. Such reintroductions were risky, here at the best place in the world. Marielena would only have cried.