We cross the border into Costa Rica at Sixaola, on the Caribbean coast. After our experience with Butt-head, the customs officer who slashed and gouged his way through our car at Panama’s Manzanillo port, it is a pleasure to meet this genial fellow sitting behind the customs counter. Unlike Butt-head Mr Genial doesn’t seem to feel the need to equip himself with a pistol, a cosh and a no.1 buzz cut. In fact his biggest concern is not that we might be carrying 100 kilos of prime coke, but how he should describe our vehicle in the paperwork he’s about to produce. Whilst Christine fills out an official form Mr Genial and I stroll outside to kick the tyres. ‘In some countries they call it a casa rodante,’ I explain to him, ‘and in others it’s a carro casa (literally a car house).’ He taps his pen on the scrap of paper in his hand and asks to look inside. ‘You live in this?’ he exclaims, when I open the back door. ‘Of course,’ I tell him. Mr Genial chuckles when I show him the bed, and the sink, and the toilet. He nods sagely, though he still doesn’t know what to call it.
Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast stretches some 200 kilometres, from Panama up to Nicaragua. About one third of the population are Afro-Caribbean descendants. Many came from Jamaica in the latter part of the 19th century, to build the rail-road, or work on the cacao and banana plantations. Apparently they brought with them many aspects of British colonial culture, though several generations later and the maypole dancing and games of cricket have given way to surfing, football and getting off your head on ganja. “Wha happin’?”, the traditional greeting of the older generation, is also less in evidence these days. The Caribbean coast is described as the more rustic of the country’s two coastlines. As we drive through Puerto Viejo we realise that by using the adjective rustic, the author of our guidebook must be referring to all these Rastas and hippies and curly-haired surf boys, and no doubt the rather bohemian architecture sprawling over the half-dozen streets. The place is supposed to be riddled with drug-fuelled crime and murderous gang feuds, which seems a bit of a joke, especially when you count the number of arms and legs swinging listlessly from all these hammocks. It is the off-season, I suppose, with insufficient tourists to really get the pot boiling. Maybe we’ve arrived during a lull in hostilities. Then a couple of dudes sporting gongs and chains and chubby rings overtake us in their pimped wheels and thumping music and it’s pretty clear they’re not selling crates of bananas. We drive on to Playa Uva and set up camp within metres of the sea. The water is warm and relaxing after the morning’s drive. Later, we try to enlist the help of a Howler Monkey to chuck down a couple of coconuts for tonight’s cocktail, except he wants no part in this gringo foolhardiness. He clambers down the tree and saunters into the bush. We try chucking sticks to knock them down, and then two policeman wearing bullet-proof vests stroll between the palms, patrolling a beach which is all but deserted. I ask if we can use their pistols, which they find mildly amusing, only shooting coconuts is not in the police training manual, not in the Costa Rican one anyway, and so they mosey on, keeping an eye out for all these drug-fuelled, murderous gangs. Tonight we have a big storm. Layer after layer of fluffy grey sheets unfurl across the sky, flashing and banging and dumping a torrent of water. It’s quite a show and goes rather well with a glass of rum and coconut water.
THE LEGEND OF THE QUETZAL
The opportunity to slither about in the forests in search of the elusive quetzal, a bird of myth and legend, is likely to send any birdwatcher worth his salt into a total lather. Sacred in the eyes of the ancient Meso-American people, the quetzal was considered a symbol of goodness and light and its tail feathers often adorned the head pieces of the Mayan rulers and warriors. When the conquistadors landed in Central America in the early 1500s the Mayans could not compete militarily against the Spanish weapons and cavalry, and were soon subdued and slaughtered. legend has it that during a battle in the Olintepeque Valley, the warrior Tecun Uman succeeded in unseating the bloodthirsty Pedro de Alvarado from his horse, though the Spaniard ran him through with his lance. As the Mayan warrior lay dead on the ground, the last to fall in the battle, a quetzal flew down to rest on his chest, and thereafter the breast feathers became tinted with the warrior’s blood. It is said that the bird sang most beautifully before the Spanish conquest and has since fallen silent. The quetzal is considered a symbol of freedom and will die if held in captivity.
After our failure to uncover the whereabouts of the spectacled bear (see ON THE TRAIL OF THE SPECTACLES BEAR, under Ecuador) we decide to enlist the services of an expert guide in our search for the quetzal. To find the guide we have to gain a bit of altitude and so we drive up into the cloud forest, to an altitude of 2600 metres. At the Mirador de Quetzales we meet Oscar Serrano, owner of the lodge, and the man who will lead our quest. In the lodge reception Oscar shows us the tail feathers from various quetzals. ‘These are sold by poachers for $250 dollars each,’ he tells us – just another sickening reminder of this curse on our planet. With an early rise the next morning we are soon trundling down a rutted track in Oscar’s 4×4. We abandon the car and set off on foot, following a path beside a field, before crossing into woodland. Alone, there is no way we could have known to come to this place. Oscar goes ahead of us, staring intently into the treetops, exchanging the occasional word with a fellow cultivating strawberries beside the wood, both of them pointing, and muttering, and then Oscar beckoning us to him. Slipping as silently as we can down the steep, muddy bank, our guide positions us so we may see through the branches…and…there. ‘Ah, yes. Up there. I see him now.’ A male. We’ve found the legendary quetzal.
FOREST ART: THE WEIRD AND THE WONDERFUL