Intrepid Den: COSTA RICA

Here's the latest post from Intrepid Den in Costa Rica.

With incredulity, I watched my bag shoot out on to the console at San Jose airport, like a torpedo from a submarine! I was so sure I wouldn't see if for days, if ever, that I'd even stashed emergency supplies of everything including tobacco, into my carry on luggage. Some things I can do without, but tobacco isn't one of them...

San Jose, from the sky looks like one enormous caravan park – colourful, ordered, clean and constructed, unlike the everywhere else I'd seen which just looks like one huge shanty town thrown together with no consideration – and that's probably exactly what had happened. It was hot but not debilitatingly so and it was cloudy. It's green and pleasant and clean – lovely! A man holding a taxi sign asked if I needed help. I always need help but didn't say that. Instead, I said I was looking for the bus station. In no time, were walking out the airport – him wheeling my bag whilst I trotted along behind. We had negotiated a price to Ciudad Colon – my next stop and it seemed reasonable - £20 and no language barriers. He spoke fluent English and he said that lots of people in Costa Rica did. So far, so good/excellent. There are cars everywhere and most of them are Japanese – I am surprised as the USA has such a presence here, so much so that a lot of money in circulation are dollars and the new bus terminal is called the Coca Cola Terminal – no mistaking that one then.

We pulled into Ciudad Colon and found a bank so that I could pay him. It threw out five brightly coloured, parrot faced notes worth £25 each and he just rolled his eyes when I gave him one. He had no change. No one had any change, even the shops didn't have any change so in the end, I gave him 20,000 colon and he gave me back $10 complaining that he'd lost money...

I got out my old joke of a phone which I hadn't used for two months and dialed a number. Ten minutes later, Paul who looks uncannily exactly like Tony Soprano arrived in his huge 4 wheel drive necessity to meet me. Paul is a friend of my friend Daniel Dresner and even though we have never met before, we gave one another a great big hug, loaded me up and off we went to the 4 Monkeys Ranch, deep inside the tropical rainforest terrain of Costa Rica.

This ranch is huge and lush and modern. It looks like a kind of huge hacienda except the attention to detail – like mosaic walls, swimming pool, palapas roofs, guest house bigger than my house, every fixture and fitting, in fact every single thing in and on this ranch, makes this ranch a place of wonder and intense natural beauty in total empathy with the wonder and intense natural beauty that is Costa Rica! Paul introduced me to Dunia, his girlfriend, who is as welcoming and lovely as he is. They have never met me before, know nothing about me but as Paul said, if I am a friend of Daniel's then that's good enough for them! Thank you Daniel!
Paul showed me around and asked where I'd like to sleep – in the huge Artists' House in the garden or in the bedroom in the house with it's own palatial bathroom. I was after company, not isolation – I opted for the bedroom in the house... I'd brought a bottle of Colombian rum for them and they opened a bottle of French wine for me – he has a Swiss friend who imports wine! It was the first decent wine I'd had since England – it hadn't been in a shop window in direct sunshine for god knows how long and it showed! He cooked a mountain of meat and a big bowl of salad and we sat down to dinner in the most civilised fashion and we talked! In fact, we hadn't stopped talking since our initial hug. He is a very interesting entrepreneur which is why he lives outside the USA and in Costa Rica. Sometimes, I wonder if all the interesting north Americans have all left their own home in search of something with a bit more freedom – the same reason that Europeans left for America all those centuries ago.

When it was time for sleep, Dunia showed me to my room, turned my enormous TV on, handed me the remote and the A/C control and left me to it. For the first time in a very long time, I managed to watch a film that wasn't just silhouettes in a fog. No matter that it was Tom Cruise - I would have watched anything and not a sub title in sight. Bliss!


On the terrace, by the pool, overlooking the Rainforest, drinking coffee was the way I started my day. Paul's ranch (what a great word to be able to use!) is up on a ridge with views to San Jose 30 miles away and the mountains in the distance wrapped in clouds. like cotton wool Everything is green in different shades and birds of every colour swoop by. There are millions of different butterflies flitting around the flowers all of which, in nature's way, are saying “come and taste me”. This country is alive with nature and its sound is one of animals communicating on the breeze.

Paul came out to join me with his Iphone and Ipad and seemed aghast that not only did I not have either, but that I was also travelling with neither. Yes, it would be easier, but it would be like giving in to technology and consumerism and I just can't do it. He and Dunia had to go into Cuidad Colon on business so I went along for the ride. I mentioned that I'd like to buy some milk and wine and he looked puzzled – why did I want to when he had plenty of both? His generosity is beyond boundaries. We bumped into his Tico (Coata Rican) friend Victor who was driving around with a car full of bales of straw (?) and so we all went for lunch. It was a little local cafe which does the best ceviche in town. I'd heard about this delicacy, but had never tasted it. We sat on high stools at a high table and what arrived was a big bowl of Talapia fish marinated in lime and mint. It is so soft, it is like the texture of the freshest squid and it was sublime! We drank bottles of beer and whilst Dunia engrossed herself in the Spanish football derby, Victor and I talked. He wanted to know what team I supported – I don't, and about my travels. He too has been to Colombia and Mexico and I think that he was slightly in awe that I was travelling solo. By the end of lunch, we were nudging one another like old friends and he suggested I go to the Finca Cabello Loco – The Crazy Horse Ranch the next day and he'd take me riding. It's five years since I've been on a horse and many more since I really rode – back in Cairo when I galloped through the desert on a stallion which I thought would never stop. I didn't tell Victor that though.

Back at the ranch, I went to explore. It is massive. There are little pathways leading to hanging bridges, follies in the trees, an actual tree house, huge aviaries full of toucans and parrots and there are workers everywhere tending to everything. There is even a house for the workers who all look so happy – and why wouldn't they? But this ranch is for pleasure not profit. Paul has a fresh water trout farm and another which grows hydrangeas – diversity in the extreme. But primarily, he is a business man and Dunia is the company lawyer and they make a great team which must, in fact, be quite difficult – mixing work and pleasure doesn't always work so well.

After the inevitable siesta, Paul opened another bottle of wine – an outstanding Argentian Gran Reserve and cooked up another mound of meat – steak this time marinated in mustard and Worcestershire sauce and once again, seemingly from nothing, a feast arrived. They said they were going to San Jose in the morning and they'd take me to look around but I'd already promised Victor to go horse riding and didn't want to let him down. I suppose that Costa Rica is so relaxed that I could have cancelled for anther day but you know what we British are like – a man is his word and all that.


So it was with some surprise, when I arrived at Finca Cabello del Loco to find no sign of Victor or anyone, just six snarling, fang baring dogs. There were horses in the field and even a tiny foal, but people there were not. I walked back up the hill to the two enormous electric gates of the 4 Monkeys. There was a rope connected to a big bell so I gave it a tentative pull. Nothing. I used a little more force. Nothing. In the end, I was swinging on the rope like a crazed campanologist – or Quasi Modo if you prefer and still nothing. I wondered if I should just sleep in the shade like a Mexican until someone turned up except I didn't have a sombrero and then I noticed the intercom. Oh, I see, you simply push the electronic bell...

With nothing else to do, I decided to swim. I can't remember the last time I was actually immersed in water, but when I dived in, it was wonderful and not only was it revitalising, I had the whole thing to myself! I swam and sunbathed and sunbathed and swam until the maid came out and told me there was a telephone call for me. For me?! Yes. If I wanted to go riding – be there at 2pm.

I was there at 2pm and so was Victor and so was Krisia, a Canadian woman with green eyes, white blonde hair, a cowboy hat and boots and a swagger that would match John Wayne's. She's been around horses for so long, she is horse. She asked if I wanted to ride English or Western style. I had no idea what she was talking about and just looked vague. She said Western style, you hold the reins together as if you were holding the stem of a wine glass – that sounded very familiar so I opted for that. She kitted me out with a hat – I declined the offer of a helmet and signed a waiver saying so, even though I realise it's madness, especially with one brain injury to my name already (a long story – a party, Sean my ex boyfriends shoulders, being dropped, concrete floor – you get the picture). I then mounted my trusty steed “Habibi”, they adjusted the stirrups and off we clattered, up the cobbled track, out onto the road and then onto the mountainous forest path. We clopped over brooks and rivers, we climbed over boulders and we went up and down, always under the canopy of the Rainforest.

Krisia led the way and almost rides side saddle so that she can talk to the people behind and that is exactly what she did with me. We talked the whole way and as usual, I asked hundreds of questions. I'd say she is from serious money - she went to boarding school in Yorkshire, studied in Manchester and is an architect. She came here with her husband and children to build gated communities and just never went back, They are divorced now and Victor is her new partner and companion and they seem perfectly matched. She said that she taught him to ride and unlike most men, he didn't presume to know how to do it, he just followed her lead and learnt like a natural.

I don't even know how long we were out for but it seemed like hours. We mostly trotted and just wandered – I am always so surprised at how sure footed horses are when they have such big hard feet with a metal shoe which you would think would be even slipperier. Sitting way up high in just my straw hat, I did worry at times when Habibi seemed to lose his footing on the bigger boulders and I shot perilously forwards . But he was safe enough and when Krisia suggested a gallop he was keen to follow. It reminded me of a time in Killarney in Ireland with my dad, when he rented a horse for me on a racetrack and there I was, all of nine years old, hacking round the track at full pace like a little jockey. I think I was better at it then than I am now and felt quite relieved when Habibi slowed back to a walk.

Paul had told me that at Cabello Loco, they liked to drink beer and he was right!. After we'd desaddled the horses or whatever it is you do with them, we walked from the stables next door to a kind of open air saloon built around and with the trees. It reminded me of a safari with Sean when we stayed at the Shimba Hills Hotel in Kenya where similarly, the trees were the foundations upon which the hotel was built, with wooden walkways connecting the rooms. It was like a giant tree house and so was this. We settled down and Victor brought the beers in iced glasses. He'd taken lots of photos and I said not to bother showing me because I wasn't photogenic. Krisia took the Iphone from him, had a look and said “oh yes you are – you even look cute!”. And I did! How does that happen? Sheer enjoyment? And so we got talking some more and I just thought that with good company, you could live just about anywhere and need nothing other than each other and a common goal. And that is what they had. Krisia had bought the land some years ago and from nothing, had created the ranch, much the same as Paul had done with his. This seems like a very obliging country, but only if you've got pots of money or a successful business.

After many, many, many beers and a good few hours gassing, they walked me back up the hill with the eight dogs. We hugged with gusto bade farewell, the maid let me in to an empty house, so I retired to my lavish room, rummed it up and goggled at the TV - “Taxi Driver” for the umpteenth time but is it possible to tire of it?


Victor had told me about a bus shuttle service which would take me to Montezuma and I really thought it was time to get going. Not only because I didn't want to outstay my welcome, but also because I thought it was time to get where I was meant to be going. I requested a place on the shuttle, but when it came to confirm it, the internet wasn't working. What a time for it to go wrong and by the time it was working, the bus was full. Dunia was hosting a birthday party for her nephew and entire family the following day and I really didn't want to be in the way. Paul had been to a funeral but on his return, we tackled the problem together. We found another company but nothing is straight forward. I can't believe that in the third world that is Colombia, you can call a number, make a reservation and the bus just turns up, on time and takes you exactly where you want to go but here, in civilised Costa Rica, you can't. We had to download a form, fill it in with credit card details, photograph it and email it back to them – ridiculous and it seemed to take forever. In celebration of what would, theoretically, be my last night, Paul took us out to dinner to a Peruvian restaurant in San Jose. It was my first real glimpse of it and it looked pretty unremarkable. Dunia had shown me a book on San Jose in the 1920's but since then, many of the colonial buildings have been knocked down and replaced with parking lots – the Joni Mitchell song “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot” comes to mind. It is very functional but totally unremarkable. In my mind, I likened it to new towns in England – it does it an extreme injustice, but I couldn't help thinking of Milton Keynes...
I'd never eaten Peruvian food before and when it arrived and I'd scraped off the cheese sauce and batter I am still slightly ambivalent. The conversation on the other hand, was excellent – how often does Napoleonic law come up? But it did with Paul and Dunia and what with me and my law A level, I was engrossed. I'm amazed I can still remember it all – torts, precedents and my old favourite, Res Ipsa Loquiter. I offered to contribute to the bill – Paul just looked at me in his comically mystified way and said “you are our guest” - I think I was beginning to form a bit of a crush. It just seems so unusual in this dreary day and age and the blight of feminism, that there are still men who wouldn't even dream of allowing a woman to pay for herself – and damned right too! Call me old fashioned, but I didn't even know I was SUPPOSED to pay for anything! When I was younger, if I went on a date, I didn't even take any money out with me – what would I possibly need it for?


There was no word from Montezuma Expeditions as to whether I was booked or not and people were already arriving for the party. I felt very much in the way. Finally, Paul got on the phone and explained to them in a very forceful way, that we were tired of waiting, we were tired of their antiquated systems and what they needed to do right now, was accept a booking over the phone. Miraculously, he handed the phone to me, they accepted my credit card details and in minutes, I was booked on the 2pm from Santa Ana – what a difference a firm hand makes.

Paul insisted that I join the party although I sat there like a ventriloquists dummy, turning my head back and forth as if I had any idea what anyone was saying. The kids spoke English and even French but they were all busy dive bombing one another in the pool. Not to be too much of a burden – after all, this was a huge loving family affair, from grand parents to chicos, I took an interest in the cook and his food. In one enormous urn he was frying half a pig (!) and in another, he was frying plantain to make patacones. I was under the illusion that patacones were fried once and then coated in batter and refried making them fluffy and exceedingly good. Not true. They are fried once and then they are flattened in a metal device which is the shape and size of two ping pong bats tied together and once flat, are refried and then, as if by magic, they puff up on their own – and there was I, all this time afraid to eat them what with the allergies and all, but eating them anyway. He even let me flatten some and for the first time in days, I actually felt useful!

And then it was time to go so that Paul could get back to the party in earnest. A friend of his had just arrived so he came with us as we rolled out of the 4 Monkeys Ranch – me, for possibly the last time. Paul said to come back again before I leave but who knows where I will be but if I don't, I hope that it's not the last time that I'll see him. Something tells me that it won't be. He dropped me at the hotel pick up point and we had such an almighty hug. His friend took a photo which didn't come out so I have dozens of his ranch but not one of him. I know I keep saying it but I have to say it just one more time - Paul is one of the kindest, most generous men I have ever met. He didn't know me, he'd never met me and yet he'd made me so very welcome and had begun my Costa Rican
adventure for me with an experience I will never forget. Thank you Paul and thank you Daniel for bringing us together – you are both stars to me!

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