Leaving Lonely Planet
For our final stop of the trip, we wanted to visit a beach on the Pacific. We were originally planning on going to Playa Coco, because was easily accessible. However, the internet café guy recommended Playa Panama, which was two beaches north of Playa Coco. We thought it was a good idea to go there precisely because it wasn’t in Lonely Planet. Lonely Planet is the guidebook for budget travelers such as ourselves, and it had been successfully guiding us for the whole trip. It’s often referred to as the “Travelers’ Bible” or as we call it, simply “The Book”. When we’re planning a leg of our trip, it is our primary reference: “The Book says this beach is overcrowded” or “The Book said this hostel has hammocks” or “The Book says the bus station is across from the market.” The Book is reliable and chock full of vital information for the independent traveler who doesn’t mind suffering a bit by staying in crappy accommodations and riding local buses to save money. The only problem is that every one else is following the same book, and so we all end up in the same places doing the same things. Sometimes it’s nice to step out of The Book and see what happens.
So this is what happened. On our way to the Pacific coast, we had to switch buses four times, with about a one-hour layover at each. At the first bus exchange, we had donuts and pastries from a bakery. At the second, we had tall glasses of coffee while a drunk man gave an animated monologue to Zac in Spanish about his life and pineapples. At the third layover, we had fried chicken. On our last bus, as we neared the beaches, Shanu struck up a conversation with her seat mate and asked about Playa Panama. The local told her that the hotels were far away from where the bus stopped at Playa Panama, but if we got off at Playa Hermosa, there were lots of hotels nearby. So we switched plans and got off at Playa Hermosa a few stops later. It was about four o’clock when we officially left the pages of Lonely Planet.
We followed the locals down the road towards the beach, and soon started to notice several key factors. Key Factor Number One: there were a lot of people on this road to the beach. Key Factor Number Two: the hotels looked nice. We put number one and number two together and determined Number Three: We were screwed. A few inquiries at the hotels confirmed our suspicions: the hotels were expensive and they were all full. It was a Sunday evening, and we couldn’t understand why so many people were at the beach.
We were running out of real estate and started trying to think of a new plan. We could go out to the main road and try to catch a bus to the next beach, but buses weren’t very frequent and whatever was causing this beach to be so crowded would probably be having the same effect there. We could take a taxi and have it drive us around to all the beaches until we found room at an inn—but this was an expensive option. We were looking around bewildered, trying to decide whether to keep searching this beach, or to try and go somewhere else, when out of the blue, we heard a voice behind us inquire, “Do you need a place to stay?” Our magical person had arrived.
The Magical Person
Many travelers can attest to the magical person phenomenon. The magical person always appears when you are really and truly stuck. When you are in line at a Chinese train station and are totally unable to communicate the train ticket you need, the magical person will appear behind you in line, speaking fluent English, and help you with your transaction. When you are unable to find your hostel in Seoul, the magical person will appear and take you in a cab to your hostel. When you are in Namibia trying to get to Brandberg Mountain, the magical person will appear and just so happen to be the director of the park and take you there in his personal vehicle. And when you are at Playa Hermosa and have absolutely nowhere to stay and it’s getting late, the magical person will appear and offer you a tent on the beach with three beds and a fan for twenty bucks.
Our magical person was an expat from Quebec, with long gray hair, just a hint of poor hygiene, and a few screws loose. He said he had been living in Costa Rica for about 18 years. He was probably traveling through one time, saw a plot of land for sale and thought, why not? He led us down a dirt road parallel to the beach, through two locked gates and into a shady compound where large dogs resided. (I was sure this was the beginning of some horror movie where we were going to get hacked to bits and fed to the dogs.) He showed us the “tent on the beach” which turned out to be a tent in a little fenced in area between a wall, and some shacks. The “three beds” turned out to be three scrappy strips of foam and one soiled pillow. The bathroom in the compound was loosely constructed of wood and corrugated iron. The shower had no door. But, if we walked further into the compound, it indeed opened onto the beach. Playa Hermosa was a lovely beach with black sand and mild waves. So we stayed.
We forked over 10,000 colones to Mark, and he took out a plastic baggie from his pocket and unfolded a crumpled piece of paper. He boxed off a section and wrote our names and passport numbers. He put the money in a separate baggie. He told us that he had snorkel gear we could borrow, we should make sure we kept the gates closed for the dogs, and there was a decent seafood restaurant down the dirt road opposite of his compound. He gave us a black plastic bag containing three towels, two sheets and one pillowcase. We returned to our tent, put on our suits and went and stood in the ocean until the sun set around 6:30. Facing the compound from the beach, we could see a big red and yellow painted sign indicating that we were staying at the “Ecotel.” I thought it was a convenient euphemism for “sleeping in a tent in a hippie compound”.
Our dinner at the Pescado Loco restaurant was expensive and the fish (the waiter said it was marlin) was chewy. It was the worst meal we’d had so far on the ratio of cost to taste. It began to occur to me that maybe the followers of The Book actually drove down the prices in tourist locations. Nobody is cheaper than a budget traveler. The local tourists were obviously the upper class, willing to spend a lot on their vacations, whereas budget travelers from abroad tend to be cash-strapped young people who want to stretch their limited budgets as much as possible. We demand cheap prices over quality or luxury in room and board. This local tourist haunt was out of our range. Even the other guests at the Ecotel owned cars, which were parked in the compound.
During our two-night stay at the Ecotel, we kept the mosquitoes well fed. We spent our day at the beach by swimming, walking around the point when the tide was low, and attempting to snorkel in the afternoon’s choppy waters. We chose a beach front restaurant for our last dinner together, and enjoyed a delicious dinner with a spectacular sunset. We rehashed our favorite parts of the trip and decided, “We should do this every year!” Although, maybe we’ll stick to The Book in all future travels.