Costa Rica: Swimming with Sea Turtles

Caño Island, Costa Rica: December, 2021

Continued from: Costa Rica: Welcome to the Villa

We woke early one morning to go snorkeling, not difficult as the sun was up and the sky was blue by six in the morning every day. This was one of my favorite things about Costa Rica, the energetic, appropriately timed natural wakeup allowed me to feel better rested than I had in years at home. Coffee goes from a requisite to a desire when you can practically see where the beans are grown as the sun slowly rises past a south-facing wall of windows. We were almost too early even for breakfast, but Cesar had the Tico breakfast and pumpkin-colored danger salsa ready nearly as we sat down. There’s no hurry in Costa Rica, so we ate slowly and sipped a mug of coffee that was black as Russian leather while watching the palms flutter in the light post-dawn breeze and listening to the distant howler monkeys announce the day.

I drove us down the mountain, which had gotten much easier with daily reps, and passed through the main crossroads of Uvita en route to the beach. The office where we were to meet our guide was on a nondescript backroad, and when I pulled the car into the tight lot, a college-aged kid came out to tell us where to go. The office looked like a giant open-faced shipping container with several regular sized shipping containers inside of it. There was a table with coffee, pineapple juice, and several trays of fruit-filled empanadas. We were the first to arrive despite being right on time and so we took some of the refreshments to a picnic table near a white-barred window with palm leaves reaching through it.

I had assumed the young guy who welcomed us was from Costa Rica, but it turned out his name was Gregor and he was German, working here for half a season before vagabonding on. We talked with him for a bit before other guests began to arrive, and it gave me even more of an appreciation for European language education. Gregor spoke Germany natively, Spanish fluently enough to work for a Costa Rican tour company, English almost as well as I did, and I heard him speak French to a couple of girls from Holland, though I assume by next time even Dutch will be in the arsenal for this teenage polyglot. Meanwhile in the US, my first Spanish teacher in seventh grade stayed one lesson ahead of the students and then eventually stopped showing up. When she wasn’t replaced, I waited a few years and took high school French, and now people in Latin America mercifully switch to their superior second language as soon as they hear me utter buenos dias. I was instantly envious of Gregor and his ability to speak to an entire continent of people on a deeper level. 

Everyone had arrived, and our jovial, mustachioed guide, Jovino stepped out of the office and gave a quick once-over of basic snorkeling do’s and don’t’s and then we were off. It was nice to be treated as adults and not hand-walked through how to snap a life jacket and what water is, the way safety demonstrations often go at home. We had a fairly small group, just Lauren and I, Gregor’s mom who was visiting him on his travels, the two Dutch girls, and a single man who didn’t say much. Gregor and two other assistants would be joining as well. We followed Jovino down an alley flanked by tiendas and small houses that ended at a ranger station where you pay to access the beach. Playa Uvita, the one with the whale tail sandbar is part of Parque Nacional Marino Ballena, so there’s an entry fee, but that was included in our tour so Jovino gave the ranger a casual wave and we all walked around the fence that blocked the path.

Playa Uvita is incredibly wide at low tide, but at the moment it was a twenty-foot strip of sand between a forest of coconut palms and a glossy blue bay. We sidestepped through the palms, colossal and Cretaceous trees with bowed trunks and waving fronds that were twice the size as people, avoiding dried coconut husks and scrambling iguanas as we made our way to the end of the beach. The twelve-seat boat was anchored about fifty feet out in the bay, floating in two feet of translucent teal water.

Once aboard, Jovino announced we were waiting for two more passengers and that one of the assistants was calling them now. We were already forty minutes behind schedule and for a few moments I was irritated that we were being further delayed but this impatience quickly flew away with the soft gusts of the honeyed southerlies. 

At best in the US, the tardy tourists would be given a number to call for a partial refund but when word came back that the last passengers were twenty minutes away, Jovino calmly mentioned that of course we would wait to depart until they got here. Lauren and I passed the time talking to Gregor’s mom about Germany and soon enough the latecomers were wading across the bay, a man and woman taking extra care to avoid getting their clothes wet, he carrying his own gear and she clutching an enormous sun hat to prevent it from blowing back to the beach. We were no longer the only Americans on board.

The boat crashed through the breakers which pleasantly cooled us down and then glided quickly over the calm open sea. The craft leapt like a speedboat over the tiny ripples of the sunny mid-Pacific, and the shore of the Central American isthmus was nearly sunk beneath the distant stern side surface before Jovino slowed down the motor for a leisurely ride to the island. The sudden silence from the lack of wind brought out the social conviviality that happens on these types of excursions, and we all began getting along quite well. Mr. and Mrs. Missed-Their-Alarm were actually very friendly once they got situated and we talked about other reefs we’ve snorkeled, and how we would absolutely get scuba certified if we lived in a place where it was possible to consistently do so. Gregor talked about his travels. He began in Mexico and has been working his way south for months, and will spend one more week helping with this tour before crossing into Panama, which we could just about see from our offshore vantage point. Then it was onto Colombia and Peru, where his mom would once again meet him and they would hike to Macchu Pichu together.

‘What’s after that?’ Someone asked.

‘Not sure. Might continue, might go back home. We’ll see.’

He looked at his mom who said ‘Just make sure it’s somewhere I’ll want to visit!’

It got quiet once again as a pod of dolphins flanked the boat, diving and leaping in rhythm with each other so that we couldn’t quite make out how many there were. Eventually surrounding us on four sides, they were welcome company for the last section of the crossing. After about an hour on the boat, we reached Caño Island and anchored. We weren’t allowed on the island itself because it is a biological preserve but from the boat it looked positively primeval with its blend of deep green trees appearing to merge into one behind a sliver of a dark sand beach. We followed our fellow passengers in donning gear and jumping off the back. The water was as warm as the air and almost as clear.

Several meters down were schools of bright fish following each other in zigzags. Coral grew along rocky spires that reached up from the sea floor and almost breached the surface. I watched a crab scuttle behind a singular polyp as my shadow approached. For a moment it was stunning, but then I started getting water in my mask and I had to surface to dump it out and tighten it. This brief hiatus from looking where I was going set off a chain of events that involved getting a seaful of salt down the snorkel and the suddenly choppy waves tossing me into the barely submerged rocks like a boat bottomed on a sandbar. After a few attempts at freeing myself from the sharp stones I decided to body surf the next wave and it carried me off.

Jovino, swimming in a soaked blue polo shirt, looked my way and yelled to make sure I was alright, surely anticipating a long morning if the gasping gringo couldn’t make it forty five seconds into the first dive. 

‘I’m good’ I shouted back and pointed to the rough section of water between us. ‘Rocas!’

He gave a thumbs up and, understanding I wasn’t hopeless, swam on ahead to the group.

After the goggle incident, I caught back up with Lauren, and we floated face-down and let the waves take us, paddling when one crested and relaxing in the troughs. With glassy water and unfogged goggles, we could see the towers of rocks from a distance and choose a different route. The depth was a consistent twenty feet or so but the sea life was impossibly varied for such a small space. The coral was denser and more chromatic than even the Great Barrier Reef, though obviously the latter is on a completely different scale. 

Fish swam all around us, switching directions and rising and diving in sudden spurts as if they were moving in stop frame animation. All around were tiny luminescent blue specks that floated several feet below the surface. Several sea turtles silently glided their way through the maze of reef dwellers, one pausing a moment within arms reach of Lauren before diving toward the depths. We were near the front of the group near the guide when Jovino waved his arms and told us to come quick.

‘Octopus!’ He said when we swam over. ‘They are rare. Almost never see them. Look!’

Jovino dove down a few meters and pointed to something rock colored and rock shaped slinking along the bottom, barely noticeable in its camouflage. We watched it spider-walk across the ocean bottom for a few minutes and then Jovino sent Gregor to get a photo with a waterproof camera. Soon after, the octopus rose out of the reef and swam on, its eight long tentacles opening and closing as it propelled itself forward like a torpedo. Jovino was clearly pleased when we all poked our heads back above the surface. ‘That one is for the collection’ he said. It’s not very often they get a new animal on the tour. 

We all returned to the boat so they could take us to the second dive spot, which was very similar sans octopus. Lauren became tired from battling the waves and went back to the boat with the other American woman, the one who was late, but then the heat became unbearable and they got back into the water if only to cool off. What few clouds began the morning with us had long floated onto the mainland and up the mountainsides, leaving the torching tropical sun to reflect deep below the waterline and sear any uncovered skin. The boat was shaded by a canopy but the humidity left little relief. Soon though, it was time to motor to lunch and the the wind immediately cured all heat-caused malaise.

It would be difficult to find anywhere in the world more beautiful to eat lunch, or really to do much of anything than Playa San Josecito. A day long hike from the nearest road, it sits on the edge of the massive and undeveloped Osa Peninsula, for all practical purposes only accessible by sea. Between the beach and the nearest official settlement were hundreds of square miles of dense, mountainous, unbroken rainforest filled with the world’s greatest biodiversity. Beyond the playa was a wall of trees rising up toward the steamy mountaintops, the jungle exhaling into the bright midday. 

From Caño Island, it was an easy thirty minute boat ride and we pulled up directly beside the beach. Lauren and I disembarked and walked along the waterline since the tawny sand and low latitude sun combined to scald anything not lapped by the Pacific. The food was being set up near the top of the beach where it met the treeline so eventually we had to make the dash from ocean to shade. 

After about half of the hundred or so steps, it felt like the skin on my soles evaporated and I began high stepping like a kid does on summer break when braving barefoot blacktop from the pool to the car. Lauren sprinted and jumped onto a piece of driftwood and I quickly followed before traversing the rest of the way. As we were the first across, it was interesting to witness the other strategies of getting from boat to table. The Dutch girls dropped a towel and scooted along on top of it, but this was slow going and they were easily passed by the quiet guy, who ran up the sandy slope and confidently burrowed his feet every ten steps or so. The other American couple and Gregor’s mom decided to put off the inevitable and float around in the shallow water near the boat and not even bother.

Gregor and the other helpers prepared arroz con pollo and cut up fruit at the lone picnic table beneath the coconut trees while the rest of us relaxed on the beach.  A small brown dog scurried out of the rainforest while Lauren and I were sitting on the fallen trunk of a palm tree and drinking te helado. It had no collar.

‘Ah, you’ve met our friend!’ Jovino said as Lauren determined the little fellow was safe and began giving him some scratches. 

‘Do you know who he belongs to?’ Lauren asked.

‘There are some people who set up back that way a bit.’ He pointed into the thicket. ‘Probably belongs there. We see him all the time.’

He certainly was well fed but we still gave him some chicken before the lunch was out.

The simple meal was excellent and I enjoyed sitting on a stump next to Lauren and looking out to sea almost as much I enjoyed snorkeling in the reef itself. After lunch we crossed the lava sand once again and had a swim while Jovino and the staff cleaned up. The water was calmer now that the tide had peaked and we were nearing the stillness of the afternoon. The Pacific gently lapped its pale turquoise waves onto the beach while the mountainous rainforest beyond swayed in the tranquil breeze as if one organism, like the reef off the shore of Caño. I held Lauren’s hand and we reclined in the warm water, facing it all. Two scarlet macaws flew next to each other right to left above the beach, following its contours before swooping back into the forest, their colors so impossibly bright they looked like CGI. The air was so calm that we could hear their wings. This is the moment I think of when I think of Costa Rica.

Continued here: Costa Rica: Coconuts on the Playa

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