After another relaxing day at sea, a blessing following our 18-hour-plus combination canal transit and Gatun Yacht Club port call the day before, we awoke for an early morning arrival at Puntarenas. Located on the very large Gulf of Nicoya, Puntarenas (which translates to "sandy point") is within 20 miles of Costa Rica's other Pacific Ocean cruise port at Puerto Caldera.
Costa Rica is a haven for eco-tourists the world over, with stunning biodiversity, wild rivers and numerous volcanoes (both dormant and active). Mariner's shore excursions here offer a wide range of activities suitable for everyone, from the athletic to the wheelchair-bound. In addition to the ubiquitous, daylong, see-a-bit-of-everything motor coach tour, there is river rafting and horseback riding. There are also four different ways to see Costa Rica's famous rainforests -- by hiking at ground level; riding from a tramway suspended at treetop level; riding down cables suspended from treetop to treetop in a harness and pulleys (called "zip lining"); and walking on trails and across suspension bridges strung hundreds of feet above the forest floor, affording eye-level views of the forest canopy. I chose to go on the latter, dubbed "Tropical Forest Sky Walk." On previous visits to Costa Rica, I hiked the rainforest at ground level and cruised through it on a zip line canopy tour, which I highly recommend for those who haven't had the opportunity.
Mariner docked at the end of Puntarenas's long, seemingly new pier. Though narrow, the pier is wide enough to accommodate small coaches, and several were waiting as we disembarked. After pausing at the end of the gangway for the first photo we've had taken of us (by our choice -- Mariner's photographers are blissfully unobtrusive, but always nearby when you do wish to be memorialized), we climbed onto the nearest van. Whenever possible, Mariner's shore excursions are broken up into groups of less than 20, so transportation and interaction with guides is more personal. What we also like about their shore excursion department is that their personnel attend at least one shore excursion each day, so they have first-hand knowledge of the quality of what transpires.
Aboard the bus we were introduced to Ingrid, our guide, a personable young woman of German-Costa Rican ancestry, whose English was absolutely flawless. As we made our way to the port entrance Ingrid began to acquaint us with key facts about Puntarenas, an industrial port city of about 200,000 inhabitants, with primary industries related to the port: import/export, commercial fishing and the emergence of increased ship-borne tourism. Rounding out the local economy is the harvesting of melons, sugar cane and other crops.
Continuing on to topics related to Costa Rica's national perspective, she spoke of Costa Rica's role as the eco-tourism epicenter of the Americas. Rain forest, and the less well-known tropical cloud forest and tropical dry forest, cover a large part of the country, held in an intelligent, well-negotiated balance with commercial interests such as manufacturing and agriculture. The coral reefs of the Caribbean coast attract divers and snorkelers. In the interior, birders, hikers and others wishing to spend their vacation exploring Costa Rica's varied and prolific flora and fauna can travel to hotels catering to the burgeoning industry of eco-tourism.
While it is typical in Latin America to see armed military personnel nearly everywhere, here there are none; Costa Rica has no army. In this country, literacy is about 98 percent, unemployment sits at around five percent, the cost of living is low, and palatial homes with multiple swimming pools or tennis courts cost around $150,000. For obvious reasons, Costa Rica has become a retirement destination for many Americans. A large percentage of the population is bilingual, with English the second language.
The one aspect of Costa Rica's infrastructure that lags is the roads. They are narrow and plagued by potholes, which seem to reappear as quickly as they are filled. All along our route are roadside stands selling hubcaps, which are displayed on large wooden racks. These are not stolen; they are casualties of Costa Rica's pothole-riddled highways.
Our trip to the Villa Lapas Hotel, which owns the private reserve where the sky walk trail has been constructed, will run about an hour and 15 minutes. However, on our way there Ingrid promised us that we would be crossing a bridge over a river where crocodiles are commonly seen. As we neared that destination the sky began to cloud over, then drizzle; then, of course, as we reached the edge of the river, it began to rain in earnest. Oh well -- since we were planning on visiting the rainforest it's tough to complain about getting rained on. Those of us who didn't mind a bit of rain filed out of the bus, which drove about a quarter-mile to the other end of the bridge, and waited for us.
Leaning over the railing at the middle of the bridge we were, in fact, rewarded with a vista of perhaps 20 or 30 crocs lazing around, swimming in the river, or just opening and closing their snaggle-toothed mouths, as if yawning or posing for pictures. After a few moments a new predator arrived: a handful of Costa Ricans with machetes strode toward the lazy-looking reptiles. At first we thought we would be the unfortunate witnesses of a slaughter for the sake of future boots or purses. Thankfully not. Instead, we saw the humans, warily watching the crocodiles with one eye, squat down to scoop up coins embedded in the mud. "Suicidio!" Ingrid whispered under her breath.
But it piqued my curiosity: Do people throw coins over the bridge to make a wish, or did the crocodiles simply eat some people who jumped from the bridge and spit out the change in their pockets?
As we continued toward the hotel -- and a keenly anticipated rest stop -- the sky began to clear, and though there was no bright sunshine, the rain apparently had abated. Reaching the hotel, we had a chance to do some crafts shopping and enjoy the grounds, where more wildlife made their appearance, including a palm tree whose fronds made a home for a number of tiny bats.
Continuing on, we made the five-minute drive to Villa Lapas's private reserve, where we began our trek through the forest. Although it's called a rainforest for the sake of convenience, the area we were exploring is technically a transition forest, bridging the ecological niches between the hardwood dry forests and the true rainforests. The path was still quite muddy from the rain, the cessation of which had brought out crickets and other insects. In turn, sensing plentiful food, the tree frogs made their appearance, and an army of birds flew among the branches of the canopy to dine on both.
As a result the cacophony of animal calls was horrendous, sounding much like the sound effects track of a Tarzan movie played at the volume of a passing jet. Most of the walk was very much like our experience in Gatun, but when we reached the bridges, the complexion of the walk changed dramatically. Now, walking across a bridge that spanned the rims of a narrow canyon a few hundred feet across, we were at the same level as the leafy canopy of the trees growing from the bottom of the canyon way down below us. Though my expectation was to find rope bridges straight out of an Indiana Jones movie, these were metal suspension bridges strung from steel towers at each edge of the canyons. Nonetheless, they did tend to rock and swing back and forth, especially when our entire group of 20 was mid-bridge, which proved uncomfortable and disconcerting for some in our group.
Except for the insects, tree frogs and a few common birds, our hike through the forest and across the canyons came up empty of wildlife sightings.
By 12:30 p.m., we had returned to Puntarenas, and Debbie and I were ready for two things: lunch and a visit to the local Internet cafe to transmit the files for yesterday's report the ship's Internet cafe had been unable to handle. We found the Internet cafe in the central pedestrian mall and park, a charming outdoor grouping of laptops on card tables under tall sheltering trees. It was such a pleasure to upload and transmit a half-dozen photographs in less than an hour! (Especially since we were getting hungry and wanted to get business done first before dining.)
Puntarenas does not yet have the sort of seaside bistros that many tourist-intensive port cities develop over time. We were able, however, to find a newish, clean and cheerful-looking place called Restaurante Guga one block inland from the coast, where we ordered tasty, fresh fried fish and barbecued shrimp skewers. With two drinks each, a bottle of water, the two meals and tip, the total bill was less than $40.
On our way back to the ship we perused the long lineup of local handmade crafts stalls, where a reasonably priced array of souvenirs was displayed. Top choices were bags of Costa Rican coffee, miniature oxcarts (the "national souvenir" of Costa Rica, hearkening back to the primitive mode of transport of harvested coffee beans), and my personal favorite, items carved from cocobolo, the type of rosewood indigenous to Costa Rica, a dense, colorful hardwood polished to a mirror-like sheen. Prices are very reasonable; a large jewelry box with divided interior trays goes for prices starting at about $18, and bargaining is expected.
Then, with two hours remaining till departure, it was time to get back to the ship; our six hours in the peak of the tropical heat and humidity had us crying out for a long shower. Our trip back down the long dock was shortened by the presence of a clone of the famous Key West Conch Train, a multi-car tram that took as all the way back to the gangway.
At 7:30 p.m. we had a reservation in Signatures, the only restaurant onboard we had yet to try, and the one which gets the most hullabaloo. The scuttlebutt on Signatures was tantalizing. Because of the high level of interest it was impossible for us to get a table for two, so we were put at one with another couple, a trucking company owner and his Russian-born wife from Riverside, California. The five-course menu is comprised of an appetizer (entree), soup, sorbet, main course and dessert. For me the first two choices were an escargot cassoulet, served in a hollowed round loaf of bread, and a thin and delicate chicken consomme. My wife had lobster medallions with a seafood vinaigrette and a seafood bisque. We both chose a filet of duck breast with raspberry vinegar sauce, apple tart and foie gras, and finished with a dessert of mille feuilles (thinly layered compressed pastry) with hazelnut cream and soft caramel. Delicious! (Note: Unlike most ships, Mariner does not charge an extra fee for meals in either of its upscale alternative restaurants.)
We had just enough time to make our way to the Constellation Theater for a show by another comedian, Fred Klett, whose comedy was funny enough. One joke stood out for me: "Let me tell you how slow the Internet Cafe is on this ship. The fastest way to get your email delivered is to type it, then swim ashore and deliver it by hand."
I fell asleep chuckling over that one.