Winding Down

Authored By Brian

So here we are, nearly at the end of our epic journey, and we need to kill a few days before we return to San Jose to fly back to the States. What to do… what to do?

How about a little beach time on the Pacific coast? Sounds nice!

From Monteverde, we caught an Interbus shuttle service for $30 to Playa Del Coco with two chatty Spanish couples. This wasn’t a retreat from the theft-ridden public bus; Interbus took 4 hours and was air-conditioned while the public bus required two transfers and 7+ hours. No thanks!

Playa Del Coco is located a little north of the more famous Playa Tamarindo which many people warned us about due to its overdeveloped nature and more expensive prices. Honestly though, we chose Coco because we had agreed to stretch our budget a bit and reward ourselves with another round of scuba diving.

Our first stop in Coco was the dive shop where we picked out our equipment and met some of the staff. It was to be a sign of things to come but nobody knew where our hotel was (despite the small size of the town) and both people helping us had been working at the shop for only a week. After getting sorted, we were dropped off at our hotel.

Coco is a small place; the central area is just a few blocks long of restaurants, dive shops, handicraft sellers and an ice cream truck. We booked a Dive & Bed package with Rich Coast Diving and stayed at the Hotel Villa Flores, about a five minute walk from the beach and ten minute walk from the central area. The standard rate of this place was about $80/night so we expected something kind of fancy and were disappointed with our room. There wasn’t anything wrong with it per se, but no TV and although we were the only people in the place we were put into room #2 facing the street. The grounds of the place are quite nice with a good pool and a large grassy area surrounded by palm trees, flying tropical birds and small skittish crabs that live in holes in the dirt under the plants.

The next morning we were up early and at the dive shop where we met Bianca who was our divemaster. We walked to the beach and hopped a dinghy to the Tahonga, a tri-hull boat with a trolling motor that slowly took us out to our dive spots for the day: Punta Argentina and Tortuga. My confidence has been growing with our diving on this trip and I was comfortable jumping in for our first dive. The visibility in the Pacific is kind of crappy (in the 5-10m range, max) but our first dive was great with Spotted Eagle Rays and Southern Sting Rays and a really cool encounter with about 20 rays all sitting on the bottom facing into a current in all sizes! Some were about 6 feet across and others were just little guys but we were just a couple of meters above them as they were chilling out.

Our second dive was a tiny fishing wreck but the visibility was even worse on this dive. We saw a scorpionfish hiding in the wreck but there wasn’t much else to see… maybe another ray or two lurking in the shadows. The plankton is thick in the Pacific which is what brings Whale Sharks and Manta Rays during some parts of the year but it also means they could be just a few feet out of view and you’d never know. Bianca was a good divemaster and found a lot of stuff to look at. She also kept us out of the freezing cold layers of water called thermoclines that we invariably ran across.

On the second day, instead of another couple of local dives, we decided to finish our Advanced Open Water certification by completing the underwater navigation dive and a drift dive. We already had the all-important deep dive from Australia so we can go to 40m or 120ft but without an official “Advanced” certification, dive shops may be more inclined to request checkout dives since they don’t know our background and this will remove all doubts. The underwater navigation was challenging with a series of underwater skills that included navigating lines and boxes with a compass and natural navigation. In Australia, you could have done this without a compass because the visibility is great but it was much harder here where you can only see 15 feet ahead of you. Jennifer and I worked together on part of the skills where I would navigate and she would count kick cycles (one method of determining distance) and then we switched. It’s easy to get confused and we had a slight bobble with the compass on one corner but otherwise we did well.

The drift dive wasn’t really a challenge since most dives include working with some currents but we did learn something new: a negative buoyant entry. Usually you inflate your vest (BCD) with air so when you jump in you float back to the surface but in rough waters or strong currents you may want to immediately descend. In these cases, you let all of the air out of your system and exhale as you jump so you immediately drop like a rock. It requires a very thorough pre-dive check since you don’t have a lot of time to make corrections but it felt like being a paratrooper going into enemy territory. As soon as we hit bottom, we got together and started our dive and about 20 seconds later a strong current came into our face and this cloud of dark nasty COLD water and plankton started blasting us. Martin, our divemaster and instructor, decided to change direction so we went the opposite way around the island. We spent most of the time at shallow depths and we spent 81 minutes underwater. This was the longest dive we have ever done. My side was cramping up near the end and Jennifer and I were getting bored… there wasn’t much to look at in some of the areas although we did see nice coral and small fishes.

Our third day was to the Catalina Islands; a longer day trip with a 1.5 hour boat ride to a small rocky island covered in cactuses and seagulls. The diving here is all volcanic bottoms so there is less coral but lots of rocky formations. Here at the Catalinas they are famous for manta rays and sometimes sharks. Rich Coast Diving has a deal with Deep Blue Diving where for long trips they use their boat and short trips Deep Blue sometimes uses the Rich Coast boat. Our boat ride was escorted by a pod of dolphins doing spectacular aerial jumps and wave surfing which was a cool start to the morning.

We started out learning something new: a backroll off the boat into the water like you see in the movies. Previously we have been doing the “giant stride” which is just what it sounds like; taking a big step off the boat into the water but the backwards roll is pretty sweet. Now I’m ready to be a Navy SEAL.

We saw more spotted eagle rays, big schools (hundreds and hundreds swimming together) of Jacks, more pufferfish than you can count in a variety of colors and we crossed into a number of bone-chilling cold water thermoclines. It’s hard to believe the ocean isn’t all the same temperature but sometimes going a 5 feet up or down can change the temperature 10 degrees. It was an OK dive although our divemasters were goofing around at the safety stop, pulling fins and masks off which kind of annoys us. My experience with instructing at high performance driving schools (and my general demeanor towards work) is that you should be a professional. Being a professional and having fun are not mutually exclusive and when you’re in a potentially dangerous environment, I don’t think horsing around is appropriate.

After our surface interval, we hit the water on the other side of the island with a plan to see some sharks. We were going through a narrow channel between two sub-islands and it was common to see reef sharks around there so we were excited. We weren’t really prepared for what we were going to see though. Close to shore, and particularly in this channel, there is a lot of surge. The water moves back and forth 2 or 3 meters with each wave and it’s challenging to keep forward motion without over exerting yourself and without crashing into everything. As we entered the channel, we found two medium sized white tip reef sharks on the right hand side. We were sitting just a few feet away from them as one slowly swam in a small circle. I wasn’t afraid of the shark per se but I was a little nervous about the surge potentially pushing us too close to the shark and it freaking out. Reef sharks aren’t aggressive but nothing wild likes to be cornered.

We continued on through the channel when people started pointing to the left. As I got closer, I didn’t see what they were looking at and then suddenly I realized the big, verrrrry smooth rock in the back of this corner was not a rock at all but a verrrrrry large animal resting next to an overhang. This was a Nurse Shark! We could only see from his head to the beginning of his first fin which was an easy 6 feet. The field guides say they only grow to 9 feet but this one was giant. The exciting part was being just 10 feet away from this thing, again in the surge. Moving cloooooooser, further away, clooooooooser, further away. It was with a bit of dread that I realized if the shark (this type is not aggressive) wigged out and wanted to escape, the only real route was to go through us. There were no problems though, and we continued on through the channel, wandered around a little ways and without finding much to look at, we surfaced to end our trip.

Since Rich Coast Diving charges extra for equipment rentals and uses Deep Blue’s boats on occasion, I think I would book directly with Deep Blue. Nothing personal against Rich Coast, in fact, Deep Blue may have had all the same idiosynchrasies of a seasonal employee base with vacationing owners. Who knows?

The next day we caught the public bus (bags TIGHT in hand) to Playa Tamarindo. This place is nicknamed “Playa Gringo” because of the American and Canadian presence. Condos in this area can cost half a million bucks or more and along the beachfront road you’ll find Century 21, KFC and Pizza Hut among other western institutions. Considering how much everyone talked it up, the place is a bit of a dump with unpaved road, poor drainage for the afternoon rainstorms and really high bills. A quesadilla and two Coronas cost us $15USD. Why people travel to a foreign country to feel like you’re in Florida is beyond me. There is really good surfing there though, so maybe that’s why?

We didn’t have a ton of time here but we found a good bookstore, mailed some postcards and Jennifer got some beach time in the morning. We had a lunch of nachos “as big as your ass” that were as advertised in the guidebook and on the sign out front and they delivered. There was a bit of a scramble as we tried to find transportation back to San Jose but it worked out and at 7pm we were back in San Jose.

The reason to come back on Sunday was because I needed to get a new passport on Monday before we flew out on Tuesday. This was an adventure in itself: out of the 15 other Americans we saw in the Embassy at 9am, 13 of them had their bags stolen with their passports. This was at 9 on Monday. Multiply this out by the rest of the week and you can see why Costa Rica has more stolen American passports (e.g. bags) than the rest of Central and South America combined and more than any other tourist destination like Rome or Paris where millions of Americans visit each year. Bottom line: Costa Rica is petty theft heaven and in our case cost $2500 and cut a day off our vacation.

Tuesday was easy but time couldn’t pass fast enough! We were so excited to get back home at this point. We went to the airport a bit early intending to get our final business class lounge love and found that San Jose’s airport doesn’t have a lounge. What a jip! We settled with some overpriced airport food until we boarded the plane and settled into our Delta business class seats back home. It’s no wonder why American air carriers are in a sorry shape. The business class seats, service and amenities on the Delta flights back home were only a bare notch up from coach seats on other carriers like Korean Air. No individual entertainment system, no metal silverware and god forbid, no footrests! The seats weren’t even motorized, you had to move them yourself! Ok, I’m joking around, this stuff doesn’t really make a difference to me but if I had paid cash for these flights, I would have been pissed.

We routed through Atlanta and Jennifer was esctatic. No one has been happier about filling out customs forms and clearing immigration. She tells how “everyone was so friendly, saying hello with big smiles! I was so happy to be back in America!” I’m not sure it was quite as glorious as she remembers is, but the familiarity of it all was refreshing. Including taking our damn shoes off again every time we went through security. Sigh. Some things never change.

We landed in San Francisco at almost midnight and caught a cab to our friends, the Bugnas, in Burlingame. We snuck in but Jenny was waiting for us and we sat on the couch and talked for a couple of hours before we went to bed. Home, sweet home!

One Response to “Winding Down”

  1. m luv Says:

    welcome home you guys! xoxo melissa