Sunday and the sun is glorious. So far my friend Rachel has been graciously tagging along on my rainy discount lodging tour of Costa Rica. We have crammed in a handful of cities behind us, but haven’t once stepped onto Mother Nature’s patio.
An afternoon off. Descriptions of Rio Celeste’s waterfall gush, "electric," "impossibly blue," and "like a frothy blueberry milkshake." As writers, we are suckers for a good description. The park—Volcan Tenorio—is one of Costa Rica’s newest, hardly visited and hard to get to.
The book mentioned you might convince a local to taxi you for $12 USD.
Worried? Ha. Fluent in Spanish, conversant in charm. That’s the power of a sunny day for you.
We bus to a regional hub then hop another headed toward Nicaragua, getting off at Bijagua. It looks closed for business. Mutts nap in the road, the shop is shuttered and men drink beers in the shade. After a good haggling session, I get a guy to take us to Bijagua, 13km away. Gas up (siphoning from a jug) and we’re off!
An hour later we are at the park. It’s 3:30pm, but the rangers won’t let us hike without a guide since the forest darkens early (though the trail is less than two miles long). Our friendly driver takes us to a soda (outdoor café) with the only budget lodging around. I pay up $15 dollars but the driver insists we agreed on fifteen thousand colones ($30 dollars). What????? A ruckus ensues. While haggling, we had tossed around numbers in the teens, never thousands. But this is Costa Rica, he tells me. Exactly. The only Latin American country where you hear English and use dollars half the time. Half the time. My bad to assume.
He wins. It smarts. Forget security, we tell him not to bother returning for us the next day. We’ll find our own way. Never mind my tight schedule and the fact that that there are no real options around, save a dirt bike and a few spirited horses.
Our karma changes the second we meet the Ordonez family. Witnesses of the public spat, they handle us (ugly Americans) with kid gloves. The Senora offers us coffee, brings us packaged cookies. At $5 a piece we take their bare-bones cabin. Feliz.
Boys chase each other on the cement floor of the soda while old men play cards with our hostess, all with money down. Alex, a local guide and the son of the hostess, puts in a video of tapirs. Now that they are protected they are no longer hunted, but Alex’s father Evelio used to hunt them and monkeys as well, as a pioneer here forty years ago. That’s how he discovered the waterfall with a group of friends.
I wondered, was it special? Did they take their families on Sunday outings to see it?
"No," Don Evelio says, "Nunca pense 'eso me va a dar una vida'." (I never thought 'this will give me a living.')
The waterfall was beautiful but far. There was plenty of work to do on the farm. They certainly didn’t think folks would pay to see it someday. Nor the hot springs or the bubbling thermal vents, the stuff in their backyards in the middle of nowhere.
Now we are here. Will we see it? How can we not? It is practically a dare.
We will have to start hiking at 6am to make our ride out. After our reticence to jump on the back of Alex’s dirt bike, one by one, for the return to town, Alex negotiates our ride out with the 7am milk truck that delivered from area farms to Bijagua.
The sugary smell of orchids fills the night, but then comes rain, downpours, drumming the tin roof. We will twitch in our saggy beds wondering if this was Another Stupid Idea.
It turns out that the waterfall was only the premise to the adventure. Then came the Ordonezes, with their stories of settling the jungle, the droves of bats at twilight and the milk truck hauling half dairy, half locals grabbing the rails. We did easily make the waterfall in the yellow first light, swearing that the startled rustling in the woods are tapir.
The rain had finally ceased, but left its mark on the famed waterfall—now a memorable, muddy brown.