Quepos and the Road Home
It was deserted, dark, and pouring down rain when the minibus arrived in the seaside pueblo of Quepos, even though the Footprint guidebook stated that it “pulsates with crowds and accommodations are hard to come by on a weekend.” It was Saturday night albeit the middle of Costa Rican’s so called “winter.” Claims of Quepos hustle bustle lifestyle are confusing if you are lucky enough to travel in the lowest of low seasons: the US summer.
Downtown Quepos consists of only about four blocks and a few side streets. Even if these streets were bustling, it’s still as tiny as a footprint and with most structures one story high, it’s just quaint, yet far from any European version of that.
Quepos is much less refined, and the architecture gives no cause for gazing and wonder. But there is a certain charm to the town that you will see if you are patient enough to peel away the layers of the onion.
Observing the small towns we passed through on the bus from San Jose to Quepos, the lack of infrastructure was visually apparent. Costa Rica in general does not excel in the execution of sidewalks and curbs in both rural and metropolitan environments.
Curbs are high, often bridged with a slab of concrete to make the drop down to the street less severe – but it’s all willy-nilly. Certainly these sidewalks and curbs are no good for anyone who is physically disabled.
Bottom line is: Quepos is tiny with a rugged skin and right now it’s pouring like a mother.
The second claim that needs to be addressed concerns the weather and the fact that everyone keeps telling me it’s winter just because it’s raining.
No it’s not!
Listen, I come from California – Southern California for that matter, where we don’t have winters to speak of; I’m not talking about the snow in the ski areas that are destination locations, I’m talking about the difference between East Coast and West Coast.
California is Hot. Northern Americans are all familiar with the New Years Day Parade that takes place in Pasadena. It’s always sunny, and that’s our so-called winter. But we still have to wear a jacket at night, and socks and shoes….. even boots, sometimes, in winter….in California.
But here in Quepos, Costa Rica – I don’t care what anyone says, This is not winter. It ‘s so hot, walking barefoot and naked would be best. It’s like living in a very hot, wet sauna. Despite a predictable afternoon rain no one carries umbrellas or rain gear.
But after all, we’re in the thick of the rainforest, where the jungle meets the Pacific shore. Quepos is the last town just a few miles north of the entrance to one of 20 national parks in the country: Manuel Antonio, with 1700 acres of land and 135,906 acres of marine reserve including stunning beaches. All that for an entrance fee of $10.
“Where do you want me to take you Signora?” The bus driver snapped me out of a daydream as I scoped out the town from inside the bus. “I’m trying to find the restaurant Dolce Vita.”
The recommendation came from the French chef at Mansion Park Bolivar, back in San Jose. A transplant from Paris, Gerald was tall with a shaved head, big silver earrings and a half sleeve of tattoos. He was cool, and he had turned me on to his friend Terry, who owned an Italian restaurant in Quepos called Dolce Vita. “You must call her, she knows all about the town, she will help you find a good place, you will see.” Gerald said in Spanish with a thick French accent.
Now that we had arrived in Quepos, I scanned the signs looking for anything italian. “There it is,” the driver said, pointing out the window caddy-corner down the street. “Mucho gusto, pura vida,” I answered leaving the comfort of the air-conditioned bus. Once in the street, I ran for cover towards Dolce Vita. The whole restaurant was open in the front, essentially an enormous covered patio with a short concrete ledge at the front where you could sit and really see everything around you – the perfect example of “al fresco.”
“Buenas Noches, esta` Terry?” I asked the waiter. He answered in perfect English. “She’s gone, but she’ll be back in a few minutes.”
After a quick interrogation I learned that Emilio had grown up in the states, around New Orleans, and that he’d moved here three years ago. Emilio’s parents were from Costa Rica, so you could say he was returning to his roots. Now 28, Emilio prefers his life here now, much more than in the United States. Pura Vida.
A few minutes later Terry bopped in like Pippy Longstocking with a short pixie cut, and full of energy. I gave her the lowdown on Gerald and the hookup. She got on the phone in an instant, eager to help, and in no time she’d found a place for tonight and another alternative for a month long stay to look at in the morning.
“If you don’t like these options, we will find you something else, don’t worry,” she said with wide eyes and a Cheshire cat smile.
Lucien arrived a bit later, one of Terry’s friends. He owned jewelry stores back in the states, and here in Quepos he ran a business escorting clients out on his luxury catamaran to see the surrounding islands or for diving excursions. While we talked Emilio served a plate of pasta that awakened more memories of Italia.
“This is so good Terry, so authentic, so Italian.” I said in between huge bites of spaghetti al’pesto.
“Bueno, I am Italian, from Sardegna,” she said, and I was in heaven again. Teresa shared stories about her move here long ago, and pura vida.
After dinner, she drove me down the street to The Wide Mouth Frog, an international backpacker’s hostel. For $35 I got a private room with a bath. The room was situated directly across from a triple lane lap pool surrounded by a portico. Adjacent was a lounge with a TV, and couches. A covered patio sat between the TV room and an outdoor kitchen.
A uniformed guard walked around the grounds with a flashlight, for security. Along with a fresh bath towel, the manager gives you a rule book, hand made, that was to be read, and then returned to the front desk in the morning. It had to do with noise factors and drugs. Strictly forbidden, and 10 pm was “put it to bed” time.
The next morning the storm was pounding harder than ever, but it was still so hot. On the open patio beside the outdoor kitchen, breakfast was being served. It included rice, beans, fresh fruit, oatmeal, and a few other things I didn’t recognize. A French family with two grade school kids gobbled it up, while a 30 something couple from Germany headed out into the storm with backpacks.
Teresa arrived not on Tico time, but precisely at 10 am, as was our plan the night before. We drove seven kilometers along a winding two-lane road that stretches from Quepos to the entrance of Manuel Antonio National Park. As the park’s only access road, it is well packed indeed, with hotels, bungalows, restaurants, a few gift shops and adventure excursion/tourist service stations sandwiched in along the way. The road culminates in a roundabout, with a few hotels on either side of the park’s entrance on a short side street at the end beside the entrance.
But as thick as the businesses are that line both sides of the road, they are dwarfed by the surrounding jungle, except at night, when the neon lights are shining, and you can’t see the canopy above you and the thick vegetation that seems to be slowly swallowing the structures, like that scene in Jumanji when the vines start growing inside the house.
Along the way, the rain poured, but no one carried umbrellas and everyone was dressed in shorts and sleeveless tops, because it’s so stinkin’ hot.
Not far from the park entrance Teresa made a sharp turn right down a curvy road with a dramatic descent that felt like a roller coaster ride. I was glad for the traction on the tires as the road had distinctive patches of slippery moss.
Down below, a woman emerged from a two-story building set in the middle of the jungle, right on the beach. Pleasant and soft spoken, Janet is the owner of the two story apartment set half way up hell’s hill. This rustic hotel, La Arboleda, currently had beach front apartments available for $18 per night. One space featured a large kitchen area, one bedroom and bath with a shower, and a long balcony that looked directly over the ocean.
“Welcome to your new home,” Janet said after I handed over thousands upon thousands of colones to cover one month’s rent.