1. Warming up

Dear friend, gringo tourist! We are happy you visit our park. We
hope your visit will bring you pleasure, and make friendship between our
countries even better. Entrance fee for locals 5 cents, for foreigners $20.
National park entrance sign

As soon as we left the airport, we found ourselves in a street which was nothing else but the famous Panamerican Highway. After years of civil war, Managua looked as if it had been destroyed by a major earthquake. We got our visas in Costa Rican Consulate. In Moscow it would have required six months of paperwork, but here it took five minutes. I think the consulate clerk didn't notice what our citizenship was.

We took a bus to Masaya National Park and started to climb the volcano. We were very excited. An hour later we realized that we'd forgotten to change money and buy food. But it was too late. We hiked through dry forest of blooming plumerias and cacti, watching jays and hummingbirds fly around. The volcano was only 680 meters high. The crater was a deep hole half a mile in diameter. Huge cloud of brown acidic smoke was rising from the bottom. Red vertical walls were all dotted with large burrows: the crater was inhabited by a colony of parakeets. Their green flocks looked surreal flying between red cliffs. Vacant burrows were used by small swifts. Birds are usually very sensitive to air pollution - I have no idea how they survive in the crater.

A lake of hot lava had existed in the crater for many centuries, but it disappeared in the 1960-s. Only one pit at the bottom was still glowing.

The night we spent near the crater was the first test for our tent. Julia was a dress designer, so the tent was made from materials not normally used in tourist gear, such as chiffon. It weighed less than a glass of water, and was completely insectproof. I still use it today for tropical trips.

Next day we hitchhiked to Costa Rican border, one of very few non-disputed international boundaries in Latin America. Most countries have claims for huge chunks of all surrounding lands, sometimes up to a half of a neighbor's territory. With idiotic consistency they show all disputed lands as their own on maps, and even bother to mention them in weather forecasts.

It took about an hour to pass through Nicaraguan customs. We hiked to Costa Rican border post, and were greeted by an old guard, sitting in a chair under a large tree. His job was to tell all newcomers about the dangers of malaria, and to sell some prophylactic pills if necessary. We liked the idea. May be people visiting Russia should be given Alka-Seltzer pills and lectures about dangers of alcoholism.

"Hablen espanol?" he asked.

"Un poquito."

"A little? That's strange! Where're you from?"


"Well, it's OK than."

We were very embarrassed. We had no time to learn the language before the trip. It is very easy, and most tourists learn it in advance. For that reason, few people working in tourist industry in South America bother to learn English. In countries with difficult languages, such as Hungary or Israel, a lot more people can speak it. Anyway, just a month later we were already able to discuss simple matters with truck drivers.

We got to the foothills of Orosi Volcano, and hiked down to the coast of Santa Rosa National Park through forest full of monkeys, lizards, fireflies, and other wonderful things. It was the only place on our entire route where we encountered poisonous snakes without looking for them. By noon next day we got to the Pacific coast. Palm-lined beach stretched for miles in both directions without a single human anywhere in sight. We left our clothes in the shadow of coconut palms, and jumped into the surf. Only at that moment I fully realized that our trip was not a dream, but an exciting reality.

At sunset we put up our tent at the edge of the beach, and went on to swim in a mangrove lagoon nearby. It was filled with warm green water; small crocodiles were hiding among tree roots. At night it was fun to point a flashlight at the lagoon: there were lots of red crocodile eyes everywhere, and fishing bats came immediately to hunt for small fish attracted to the light. After midnight the bats left, and we could watch four-eyed Anableps fish swimming on surface.

Next day a few other people put up their tents at the beach. We had no food left (our map said there was a restaurant at the beach), and the showers didn't work. Julia was very upset. I tried to explain that we could drink coconut milk and catch an iguana for lunch, but she started crying. I'd rather be attacked by all crocodiles in the lagoon than face a weeping girl. The situation suddenly looked desperate. I decided to drown myself in the ocean, but then noticed a young American couple walking towards a tiny Jeep parked nearby.

"Already leaving?" I asked them.

"No, we go to Liberia for dinner."

"If I were you, I wouldn't do it," I said.

"Why not? It's only forty miles away."

"It was raining yesterday. You might get stuck. Well, we could go with you and help you push the car if necessary."

"Really? Thank you so much! But how will we get back?"

I looked at Julia. "OK, we'll go back with you, too."

Julia could speak good English, but she'd never got a chance to talk to a foreigner before. It took her a while to believe she was able to communicate with Mike and Sandy. While we were waiting for our meals in a restaurant, a mariachi team showed up. Their leader was an old black man with a strange instrument: a wooden box attached to one end of a long stick. A piece of rope connecting the box with the other end of the stick was used as a string. Mike was very excited.

"I studied the history of jazz," he said, "and heard about such things being used around the time of the Civil War, but I don't think any American museum has one."

Late at night we got back into the Jeep and drove back. The road was full of local people on bicycles. "How come they have no light reflectors?" exclaimed Mike every time we passed them, "They shouldn't be on the road without reflectors!" Then we turned into the national park, and there were no more people on the road. There were lots of nighthawks instead, but they all had light reflectors: large white spots on tails.

We went to our tent and found a broad track of a sea turtle leading towards it from the sea. It was fresh, but the nest had already being robbed by coyotes. I hanged a plastic bag with leftover pizza on a tree, left Julia in the tent, and hiked along moonlit beach in search of turtles. I didn't see any, but there were lots of nest robbers waiting for them at the edge of the beach: coatis, gray foxes, raccoons, and coyotes. I returned to the tent and found a small ridley turtle crawling to the sea from her nest nearby. I tried to protect the nest by peeing on the sand around it, and went to sleep. My method worked: by morning the nest was still intact.

We woke up ready for breakfast. But the bag had a hole in it, and a caravan of hermit crabs was carrying away the last pieces of our pizza. We had to find Mike and Sandy, who were just leaving, and offer them our help in getting to the highway. Eventually they took us all the way to San Jose.

From the capital we took a bus to Arenal Volcano in the central highlands. It was a grim-looking cone with dirty-brown cloud covering the top. It was making funny puffing sounds like an old steam engine. At the road turnoff leading to the volcano was a ticket office.

"Let's walk around it through the forest," I said.

We walked for a few hundred meters down the road, and tried to break through the thickets. Usually it's easy to move through a tropical forest, but this was secondary jungle, dense mixture of creepers, bamboo, cobwebs, tree ferns, and spiny palms. Everything was covered with volcanic ash, and each our move caused the ash to rain on our heads from leaves and branches. We kept pushing forward, but I got a feeling that Julia was about to bite into my neck vertebrae. Finally, we got to the entrance road beyond the ticket office. But we hardly had time to shake off the ash. A guard's car showed up, and we were escorted back to the entrance: the park was closing for the night.

I always felt very ashamed entering national parks without paying fee. But we couldn't afford paying $20 every time. We caught a few hours of sleep at a nearby lake, and came back to the entrance at midnight. Following a dry creek bed, we got to the volcano, and started climbing.

The cloud surrounding the summit was now illuminated by red glow, and ash was falling from the sky. Once every few minutes a golden fountain of lava appeared, and lava streams rushed down the slopes. Then they slowed down, breaking into huge boulder-like chunks. These balls of molten rock rolled down with wonderful squashing sound. We climbed as close to them as we could, and watched them pass by as giant snowballs, leaving trails of red sparks.

Next morning we found a hot river in the forest. It was flowing through a chain of clean emerald pools. We spent a long time in these pools, with hummingbirds feeding on large white orchids overhead.

We also visited Poas volcano not far from San Jose. It has colored lakes and nice cloud forest at the summit, but its slopes are mostly cultivated, and it is a bit overcrowded by tourists.

We took a bus to Braullo Carillo National Park and then to Limon, Costa Rica's largest Caribbean port. It was hot and dirty, and the hotel was the worst one we've seen.

Lowland seaboard from Limon to Honduras is known as Mosquito Coast. There is a 200-km long system of natural and man-made channels parallel to the shore, which is probably one of the world's most scenic waterways. Its shores are lined with aquatic Rafia palms. There are lots of haciendas along the channels, but they are mostly invisible from the water, so it feels like traveling through endless rainforest. It is a great place to watch tiger herons, bats, turtles, sloths, caimans, and butterflies.

We took a boat to Tortuguero National Park. It was a popular tourist destination, so it was a bit expensive. As usually, the cheapest hotel was also the most comfortable one. It was almost all vacant, so we had the shower to ourselves.

The surrounding beaches were one of the main green turtle breeding areas in the Caribbean, but it wasn't the right season. We had a chance to see leatherback turtles instead. You were required to take a guide if you wanted to hike on the beach at night. We didn't have that kind of money, but we knew the rules of turtle watching, so we simply hiked south quietly. The turtles will not come out of the sea if they see you, so you can't use flashlights. But once they start laying eggs, nothing will stop them. The idea is to stay far enough from the water edge to avoid scaring the turtles, but also far enough from the forest edge to avoid attracting too many mosquitoes. Malaria-carrying Anopheles are very common in Tortuguero. We walked for about two hours, sometimes finding tracks more than a meter wide. Then Julia said she was tired and wanted to go back. I tried to convince her to keep going when a group of tourists came out of the darkness, guarded by a guide.

"What are you doing here?" he asked.


"You must have a guide."

"OK. Can you be our guide?"

"No. You must go back to Tortugero, pay $50, and bring me the receipt."

"But it will be morning already!"

"Than just go back."

And they moved on. Julia decided to go back to the village; I took off my white T-shirt and followed the group quietly. Soon I saw them crowded around something very large, and carefully crawled towards them. They were so concentrated that they didn't see me. The turtle looked like a large boat lying bottom up in the sand. We watched it until it finished laying eggs and returned to the sea. Then the guide noticed me and asked why I hadn't obeyed his order.

"I did," I said. "My girlfriend went to the village to get a receipt, and I followed you to know where you were. You seemed to be the only guide available."

"Go away!" he said. And I went back to the hotel.

Julia missed the turtle, but she had her own share of adventures. When she got back to our room, she discovered that we had a visitor: a huge blue-gray crab. She didn't want to go to sleep with a meat-eating creature the size of a small watermelon wandering around. She took a large saucepan from the kitchen and waited in an ambush for almost an hour. The crab came out from its hole a few times, and Julia tried to capture it, but missed. All other visitors were probably awaken by the sounds of the saucepan falling on the floor, and Russian curses. Finally she trapped the monster and kept it in the pan until morning.

We went back to Limon and tried to get on a cargo ship to Venezuela or Colombia. We had to wait for three days, traveling by bus from the city to the port and back every morning, and spending afternoons in Cahuita National Park nearby.

The only tourist attraction in Limon itself was a pair of sloths living in a tiny park. I wanted to get a better look at them, but I didn't want to be arrested. So I asked Julia to walk around the tree while I climb it, and to sing something if she sees an approaching policeman. For reasons I couldn't understand she didn't like my plan, but I climbed the tree anyway. It was early morning, the park looked empty, and the tree was easy to climb, although very dirty. I reached the sloths, and then looked down. Julia was nowhere in sight. Instead, a huge crowd gathered around the tree, watching me intensely. I got down as fast as I could, and the people ran away when they saw how dirty I was. Fortunately there was no police around, and I made it to the hotel safely.

Finally a Colombia-bound ship arrived, but the captain couldn't take us because he wasn't sure we'll be allowed to enter Colombia. We gave up, went back to San Jose, and tried to get a visa to Panama. The idea was to hike to Colombia through Darien Gap. We spent two more days there, visiting Panama embassy every morning just to be told "manana" once again. The city had no attractions except for a nice museum and a small zoo. By the second day we ran out of options, and had to spend the evening in our hotel room, reading Tico Times, the only English newspaper in San Jose. It contained some funny ads and letters from visitors. I remember one of them: "Dear Editor! We came to your country from Austria for a vacation. We went to a restaurant. There was some ugly local guy in there, and he was smoking. We asked him to get out, but he refused. We are leaving immediately, and we'll tell all our friends not to go to your banana republic!" I don't know if the newspaper crew wrote this letter, or it was a genuine one.

Next day was Saturday. We went to Takanti, a national park fifty kilometers from the city, but found no good forest there, only some secondary growth among fields and plantations. On Sunday I decided to visit a small Nature reserve on Sierra del Muerte. It was shown on some maps, but not mentioned in guidebooks. I was almost sure there will be no forest either, so I didn't take Julia with me. To my surprise, it was an excellent cloud forest with swarms of hummingbirds along the highway. I even found a nest with two chicks, attached to a huge begonia leaf. Deep inside the forest I ran into a large open swamp, probably the northernmost paramo in Central America. Its tundra-like tussocks were inhabited by tiny shrews and salamanders. The icy-cold river in the middle was lined with rare Zamia cycads.

I was about to hitchhike back to the city when I noticed a road sign: Mirador de quetzales. Bienvenidos! I walked down a steep side road for about a mile, and found another sign: Entrada $40. Bienvenidos!

I was ready to get off the road and sneak inside as usually, when a van with Chilean tourists appeared. I offered to find a quetzal for them if they'd pay my entrance fee. We spent three hours in the forest. The weather changed, it was now very cold and wet. All living things disappeared in burrows and tree holes, except for hardy hummingbirds. I found nothing to show them except for a few parrots, a cow, and a wasp colony. Everybody was cold and miserable. I was about to give them the money back, when we finally saw movement in the canopy. It was a nice male quetzal. Unlike me, the tourists had warm jackets, so they immediately became very happy. I had to wait for another hour until everybody got a good look at the birds (a female showed up, too). It was too late for hitchhiking, so I had to use their van to get back.

We got back to the van, and the driver told me quietly:

"I'll give you a ride to the city for twenty bucks, but you shouldn't tell them I charge you for it."

I had to accept it. We rode back to the highway and broke down at the turnoff. I took back by money from the unlucky driver, and hitched a ride from a passing truck ten minutes later.

On Monday the embassy clerks told us to come next morning once again. We gave up on them, and had nothing else to do but to go to Venezuela by plane. South America was waiting for us.

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