To catch up on our 700-mile road trip across Costa Rica, click here, here, and here. Also, please note these are howler monkeys in Tamarindo. If you ever hear them roar, you’ll never forget it. It’s like King Kong times fifty.
130 Miles to Anywhere
I had been looking for monkeys from the moment I landed in Costa Rica. Actually, I’d been downright searching. But as mangrove day concluded with that cold shower I’d been daydreaming about all afternoon, I still hadn’t seen one.
After my shower, I joined Nora and Rita in our hostess’s open-air living room. Nora had a sparkle in her eye, and I immediately knew something was up. She was leaning over a map of Costa Rica. Rita was flipping through a guidebook with a scarlet macaw on the front.
“You know tomorrow is a day off for the volunteers,” Nora said. “So, we could hang out here all day or maybe head up the coast.”
We were meeting our husbands in Tamarindo in two days. It was 300 miles north, about eight hours of driving time. At that point, we wouldn’t make it there until well after midnight. Besides, our reservation didn’t start for 48 hours. “Head where?” I asked.
Nora shrugged. “Anywhere.”
Anywhere. Three gringas in a third-world Spanish-speaking country going anywhere? At first I thought about that saying, “the devil you know is better than the one you don’t.” Then, I pictured eating another plate of rice and beans and sleeping in a cabin decorated like a prison cell. A cabin with cockroaches.
Rita asked, “Should we vote?”
“We don’t have to vote,” I said.
Within thirty minutes, we packed up our rental car, told the Osa In-Water Project how much we enjoyed our sea turtle adventures, and split. We left Playa Blanca at dusk heading…well, heading anywhere. And maybe, just maybe when we got there I’d see a monkey.
We stopped 130 miles later in a small town called Quepos right outside the Manuel Antonio National Park. Nora had driven the whole four hours it took to get there, and it wasn’t an easy drive. The sky grew black. It rained, then rained harder. Street legal dirt bikes, carrying anywhere from one to five passengers and maybe the family dog, passed us on nonexistent shoulders. We got lost, took a thirty-mile detour.
I’d like to say we intentionally picked Quepos because we knew it was one of the top places in Costa Rica for seeing monkeys. But, we honestly had no idea. We picked the town because it was halfway to Tamarindo and had reasonably priced amenities.
Rita had found a two-bed, two-bath apartment on Airbnb for under a hundred bucks per night. In the states, our rental would have rated two stars, but after our cabins in Playa Blanca it was a solid three and a half. We walked to a small market, bought staples, and Rita made gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, complete with red onions and tomatoes.
That night we sat on the balcony and listened to the sounds of the jungle several hundred yards from our door. Moonlight glimmered off the tin roofs dotting Quepos’s rolling hills. A few streetlights revealed colorful laundry swaying from porches, compact cars and motorcycles parked bumper to bumper on narrow roads.
For the rest of that evening, we sipped on adult beverages and laughed about the acrobatics involved in washing thick hair in a cold shower. We laughed about planting mangrove seeds with our hands and hauling buckets of water to the nursery. We laughed until our sides hurt.
When I had started this trip, I was nervous about fitting in with a group of women. Four days later, I was sitting on a balcony overlooking a jungle, sharing secrets with Rita and Nora that I’ll never share with anyone else.
In Quepos, Nora, Rita and I acted like tourists for the first time since we arrived in Costa Rica. We slept late, indulged in hot showers, then found a cute restaurant run by ex-pats where we gorged on veggie omelets, pancakes, and fresh fruit. Not long after breakfast we discovered Nora’s suggestion to head “anywhere” landed us in Costa Rica’s version of Narnia.
We were driving down a steep, winding road when Nora said, “Monkey!”
We doubled back twice but couldn’t find them. So many times before I thought I saw one, but it always ended up being a black squirrel or a swaying palm frond. I wouldn’t believe it until I saw one with my own eyes.
And then I did. Actually, I saw two, two white-faced capuchin monkeys. Nora, Rita, and I squealed like teenage girls. The monkeys were digging the meat out of a coconut in a palm tree. They were so alert and engaged, engaged with their meal and each other. At one point, it looked like they were hugging. Ironically, my search for monkeys ended in a place we never planned on going to in the first place.
Several different species of monkeys live in Manuel Antonio National Park, and the capuchin weren’t the only kind we saw. Later that morning, we strolled down Espadilla Norte, a beach right outside the park’s entrance. The sand was white, ocean blue, breeze carrying the jungle’s flowery scents. Espadilla Norte was far busier than any beach on the Osa Peninsula, but it wasn’t crowded either.
As soon as we turned around and started back, we saw three squirrel monkeys. They were running back and forth from a palm tree to a group of tourists who were feeding them bananas. Before I could pull out my phone for pictures, a few ticos asked the tourists to stop. It’s illegal to feed monkeys in Costa Rica because human hands carry bacteria their immune systems can’t fight.
At one point, a street vendor called to us. We politely waved him off because we thought he wanted to sell us a kebob or trinket. Instead, he pointed at a beige sloth wrapped around a ceiba branch thirty feet above our heads. We only saw his furry body and never his charming face, but we were thrilled anyway.
All in all, it was a perfect day. For three girls going anywhere, we ended up in exactly the right place.
The following afternoon Nora, Rita, and I sat at a beachfront restaurant in Tamarindo. We had pulled into town an hour ago. Our husbands would arrive later that evening. Three mojitos in ice-filled glasses sat on our table. A few days ago we couldn’t get a single cube let alone three glasses of them.
We watched surfers jogging into the ocean, bikini-clad women parading along the beach, families walking their dogs. Latin hip-hop played in the background and the smell of burning tiki torches filled the air. If Quepos is Costa Rica’s Narnia, then Tamarindo is Vegas. We were quiet, overwhelmed by the busy energy. We had only been gone for six days, but it felt like a lifetime.
“I changed,” I said.
“Me too,” Rita answered.
“Like something shifted,” Nora agreed.
We’d been through so much together. Like when I got sick in a Ziploc bag outside San Jose because we didn’t know enough Spanish to ask our shuttle-bus driver to pull over. Or when sand fleas attacked Rita, so we soaked in the Gulfo Dulce until we pruned. How Nora drove 130 miles at night in the rain after doing manual labor for six hours. I thought about how we hiked for seven miles through a banana plantation, crossed a crocodile-infested estuary, and planted 27 mangroves on the Osa Peninsula. I thought about a green turtle in Playa Blanca and monkeys in Quepos.
We had ingested so many new experiences so quickly that we had to change. We had to adapt. And we did it together. Finally, social equilibriums acclimated, we raised our glasses and toasted to three gringas on a 700-mile road trip across Costa Rica.