After spending the first few days in Costa Rica in and around urban Alajuela, yesterday and today were spent getting to and learning about Rancho Margot.
This place is a breathtaking 400 acre eco-lodge near a town called La Fortuna. It’s quite a place. And getting here was a fun story in and of itself.
As many of you know, Becci is a planner. Quite frankly, she has done the lion’s share of the planning and logistics related to our travels so far in Europe and Central America. A lot of our “down time” is spent with her on the web planning the next few moves. I occasionally assist and provide color commentary, but she has flat planned this stuff out. It has been a bit more of a challenge to do all of that here in Costa Rica than it ever was in Europe, as fast and plentiful access to the internet isn’t much of a priority here. There are places to get online, but they aren’t speedy and they aren’t ubiquitous.
That means that one has to catch as catch can, and Becci was doing just that over breakfast a couple of days ago. She was planning our bus journey to Alajuela, and began reading about the real possibility of luggage theft from the buses. Apparently, larcenous travelers just get off the bus, grab some nice looking luggage (or in our case, backpacks), and go. There were enough stories about it to have Bex worried. So on our long bus journey, we chained our two heavy backpacks together before we stowed them, and we kept a watchful eye on the luggage compartment at each stop.
We made it to La Fortuna with both backpacks, as well as Angus (our day pack) in hand, and we decided to case the town. It didn’t take long; the business district of this town consists of about six square blocks of tourist information booths, restaurants, and shops full of future garage-sale items. It’s like a tiny, third-world Gatlinburg.
We settled in for a cup of coffee and bite to eat. I ended up getting way more than I bargained for, having a Loco Mono (Crazy Monkey) and a giant beef empanada. Bex had the equivalent. We ate and drank like royalty and did it for less than $20. Having time to kill, we buzzed around a bit more in the humidity, before settling into a Volcano-themed beer joint for a couple of pints. Those pints were consumed strictly for medicinal and temporal purposes, serving as a time-killing measure while we awaited the arrival of a shuttle to take us to Rancho Margot. While we drank, we enjoyed the effects of 90% humidity, and we contemplated the good-natured, hard-working prostitute who was attempting to ply her trade across the street from where we were drinking. She had no takers, but the night was young.
The appointed time arrived and we chucked our gear into the back of a minivan that probably looked its best back when the US economy ran a surplus and Monica Lewinsky was a daily news item. We set out on our 40-minute ride to Rancho Margot, along with 3 other tourists who were heading to a couple of different spots along the same route. Spoiler alert: it took us longer than 40 minutes to get to our destination.
I once heard Jeff Foxworthy say that you might be a redneck if directions to your house include the phrase “turn off the paved road”. I now know that it’s equally valid to say that you might be from Costa Rica. We turned off the paved road 20 minutes into this trip, and for the next 90 minutes drove over some of the most God-forsaken areas upon which driving has ever been considered. I remarked to Becci early, and prophetically, “this is the sort of road that makes shit fall off of your car”. I could not believe that we were driving that vehicle on that road. I had no idea at this point that it would also be for that long.
This journey occurred almost entirely on gravel and mud roads. There were perhaps two or at most three short bursts of aged asphalt along the way, generally located at absurdly steep junctures of the road. This long journey was remarkable for a couple of reasons:
1. We drove in a serpentine fashion due to immense ruts and holes in the unpaved roads. The path we took, if charted from above, would have looked like the path a butterfly takes through the air to reach a flower. In spite of these precautions, we still encountered immense ruts and holes that jarred the vehicle rudely. I became aware early in the trip of a vague need to relieve my bladder. This situation became acute for both of us in the end.
2. We would occasionally pass in one direction or the other an actual taxi cab making this same journey. Each time this happened, Becci and I would look at each other, shake our heads, and laugh at the absurdity of anything other than a 4-wheel-drive vehicle even attempting this trip.
After dropping off our first passenger, a German guy who spent quite a bit of time unconsciously flexing his scrawny little arms (Becci joked that he was “showing off his guns”) at another female passenger, it started to get dark. And we kept driving. At this point, we had been moving away from civilization for a relentless 60 minutes. The area on both sides of our narrow gravel road was heavily wooded. Darkness was descending. At one point, we slowed the car to a stop so that our driver, whom I had nicknamed Michigan State on account of his t-shirt, stopped the car so that we could all peer at a red, black, and yellow snake in the road. Several iPhones got flipped into flashlight mode and went out the window to check out a beastie that very well may have been a corral snake (snake-handling-tip: they are deadly).
Like a swarm of mosquitos trying to penetrate a mosquito net, the very real possibility that we might be stuck at night in this jungle started to work its way into my head. That thought remained with me as we turned a steep corner while climbing a steeper hill. A loud thunk was heard directly under Becci and my bench seat in the back of the van. It was followed by the sound of a bulky part of our vehicle being dragged. After a moment, Michigan State threw the van into neutral, jacked the parking brake, and leapt out to investigate. He ran to the back of the van and disappeared underneath it. The engine was still running. The other three passengers and I looked at each other in befuddled, optimistic amusement.
That vibe lasted about 1.5 seconds, until the van started to lurch backwards down the hill. Becci and I looked back. We were sitting on a 15% grade, and the next solid object behind us was a home that was about 100 meters down a grassy hill. Michigan State was no where to be seen underneath a van that had surely just crushed him, and we four were sitting in the back seat, waiting to roll on down the hill into that house.
Becci snapped me out of my stupor and I jumped for the van’s side door. I wrestled it open and leapt out into the jungle beside the road. I was relieved to see that Michigan State had jumped out of the van’s way, escaping an ugly death at least for this evening, and was literally holding the vehicle at a stop. That’s amazing, as this guy couldn’t have weighed more than a buck forty. Country strong! I grabbed a big rock and jammed it behind one of the van’s back tires. Michigan State (I would like to call him Michigan for brevity, but doing so would infuriate the entire state) and I ducked underneath and discovered that the spare tire, normally mounted under the van near the back axle, had worked its way loose. That was our problem. I was again relieved, as I had expected to see a muffler, or worse, a petrol tank lying on the ground under there. With the amount of vibration that was being experienced, any part of that car might have worked its way loose. The rogue item was quickly fetched and stowed next to our luggage in the boot. Problem solved, and we were cheerfully on our way. There were many, many silent glances and reflective head shakes exchanged between Bex and me for the remainder of the journey. Oh yeah, and it started to rain.
On a journey like that, you either get evacuated out in a chopper after losing 20 pounds, or you reach your destination. But the featured image of this post is not a helicopter, is it? In fact, we reached Rancho Margot alive and without further drama. Once there, things improved considerably.
Rancho Margot is an eco-lodge that was kick-started into existence about ten years ago. Margot boasts of having negative carbon emissions, e.g., a positive carbon footprint (wait, a sec…if everyone had a positive carbon footprint, would that be as bad as everyone having a negative carbon footprint?; discuss). This place has 20-ish bungalows; a bunkhouse that can hold up to 40 students; multiple gardens; self-sustaining cattle, chicken, and pig-raising operations; manure-reclamation and composting operations; and a woodworking building for making their own furniture.
They do it all here and are self-sustaining. Two small hydro-electric plants produce the electricity required to power lights and fans. Water for showers is heated to 70C (that’s 150F for you gringos) via the use of nothing more than compost. No shit! Well, actually, there is shit in there, from the pigs and the cows. But only because that stuff helps the composting process, and is also used to produce all of the methane for food preparation. And it aids in fertilization of the soil that is used to grow the vegetables and fruit that is served here. Animal fat from the kitchen is combined with sodium-something-or-other to make the soap that is used here.That’s the soap.
We learned all of these facts and more today whilst taking a guided tour of the premises. Along the way we had three constant companions in addition to our Costa Rican tour guides:
1. Humidity. Everything in this place is damp and will remain so for the duration. It’s called a rainforest for a reason. The rainy season is euphemistically known here as the green season. And it is awfully green right now.
2. An extraordinarily irritating family from an unknown spot in Europe. So far on our trip, the noticeably annoying people have almost all been Americans. Europe stepped up big with these folks today. The dad kept correcting our tour guide about relatively-meaningless bits of information that were part of his talk. I think Euro-Dad is an engineer of some sort, while our guide is a Costa Rican guy who probably hasn’t sat through too many physics classes. But our guide does work and live here! The son closely resembled and more disturbingly mimicked Spaulding from Caddyshack (“get your foot off the boat!). The mother drew Becci’s ire…and a vocal reprimand…by stomping the life out of some leaf-cutter ants that were doing their thing on the sidewalk.
3. A sweet golden retriever named Ginger. She is my new best friend, and she is currently lying on the deck of our bungalow while another few inches of rain fall around us.
This place is stunningly beautiful. The plants look prehistoric. Plant leaves and flowers are huge. Our guide was pleased to tell us about the hallucinogenic properties of the Angel Trumpet flower, but he looked worried after I asked him how those properties might be obtained. Hummingbirds buzz by routinely. Birds we have never seen before are hopping around in the grass around our living quarters. Oh, and I encountered a scorpion this morning while trekking to the bathroom. They have those here too.
Tomorrow: another day in Paradise.