Sketches From Costa Rica

We struck camp at 4 in the morning and set off on a 12 mile hike down the Pacific coast and back to civilization. The unsociable hour was to beat the incoming tide; too late and the ocean breaches the Claro River mouth and bulldog sharks cruise up the channel to feed.

We had no guide with us but waded across without incident in moonlit ankle-deep water. Further up the beach a puma appeared in our torch beam and slunk off to hide behind a dead tree trunk. Dawn finally broke with squadrons of brown pelicans plunging the surf in search of fish.

During our two-week stay in the Corcovado Peninsular of Southern Costa Rica it seemed we met everything that swims, walks and flies on this good green planet — and the human life was interesting too, including the expats.

According to “The New Golden Door to Retirement and Living in Costa Rica” (edition 15), there are about 20,000 American expats in this country. This guide vaunts a retirement paradise — high living-standards and less corruption than its Central American neighbors. Affordable real estate and no winter heating bills are other attractions.

But perhaps it’s not always happy landings. Arriving by boat in the isolated village of Puerto Jimenez, a tout greeted us on the jetty. Brochures in hand, he sidled up nervously like a dog expecting a kick. This disheveled American was well beyond retirement age and, apart from us, the horizon was tourist-free with the sun hammering down.

Moved more by pity than genuine interest, we let him escort us to the guesthouse he was promoting. He had a wonderful patter, recounting how he had met three Costa Rican presidents and gave a fascinating lowdown on Bailey Bridges, metal prefabs that span numerous rivers in the region and are throwbacks to the World War II. They were originally designed as temporary tank crossings for the European campaign.

On a less truthful note, he passed himself off as the guesthouse owner, only to scuttle off when we arrived at reception. Another man appeared who turned out to be the real owner and booked us.

We had been duped but no hard feelings — it was by a master salesman and the address was good anyway. We bumped into him a few times during our stay in that outpost of civilization; he popped up in the most unlikely places — idling in doorways, leafing through a Bible in the midday sun like a character from a Graham Greene novel.

We never found out his name or how he ended up in such a precarious existence but I always made a point of shaking his hand, trying to engage him in banter. Unfortunately he was never as talkative as that first meeting when there was a commission in the offing.

The story of Esther Margrith Greter of Switzerland makes for a happier tale. She and her husband Marcus own a guesthouse in 300 hectares of mostly primary jungle in the Piedras Blancas National Park, bordering the Golfo Dulce bay. They bought it back in 1991, after choosing to live in Costa Rica over other options; South Africa was discarded because of security concerns; Australia, because of the exorbitant financial guarantees required by the government.

At first the locals were suspicious of these newcomers, and Esther recounts with a chuckle how they tried to scare them off with stories of 20-meter snakes and U.F.O.s dancing in the night sky. The U.F.O.s turned out to be refracted lights from a distant port and any giant snakes have yet to make an appearance. Twenty years down the line, Esther generates income for many of the same people through the Golfo Dulce Lodge, either by employing them directly or buying their produce.

We stayed eight nights in their eco-lodge nestled in the jungle. Much of the land, reclaimed from defunct banana plantations, has transformed into rampant secondary forest. Local hunters, who once roamed freely, killing peccary pigs and coati (a raccoon-like animal) and almost anything else that provides edible meat for the pot, are now prosecuted for poaching. Even spider monkeys were fair game — a rare species but, so little prized, they often ended up as dog food.

The hunters now look elsewhere, but many people living here say they feel threatened by another fight simmering its way through the country’s bureaucratic machinery. A consortium called Granjas Tuneras de Golfito S.A. wants to install a yellowfin tuna farm in the bay. Many people fear that the 100 holding cages the consortium is proposing will disturb nesting turtles, attract sharks and the fecal waste will create red tides. Local civic action groups have stalled these plans for the time being but the situation is ongoing. Asked why she helped form these groups, Esther replies, “I do it for the animals.”

And that’s the payback: bat colonies jostling in the eaves of the Golfo Dulce Lodge chalets; coati and armadillo stroll the grounds unmolested. On our last night, during dinner, a baby boa hung from the restaurant ceiling like a loose light fitting — as if it was the most normal thing in the world.

Chris Spence, a tour guide in Paris.

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