Costa Rica is a wacky little country where everyone goes bananas—oops, grows bananas!
No, that's not quite it. How about this one? If Edna Ferber's novel Giant had been set in Costa Rica instead of in Texas, she would have titled it Dwarf.
Nope, not yet. One more try. Take a sportsman's vacation in this barmy Central American republic and watch the Costans grow Rica by the minute!
Well, three strikes are out in any league, but there is a certain amount of truth in all the above generalizations. During a recent two-week tour with rod and gun through the "sportsman's paradise" of Costa Rica, this American sportsman encountered plenty of bananas (both edible and laughable), bagged an abundance of fish and game (all of it dwarfed by comparison with the tourist brochure photographs) and probably paid off the Costa Rican national debt in the process. Nonetheless, it was a fortnight to remember—particularly the fourth night, when the iguana tried to eat the boat. But more about that later.
Five distinct Adventures took place during the two weeks in Costa Rica, and each must be treated separately so as to convey the proper balance of romance and danger.
Before launching into the particulars, it would be helpful to place Costa Rica in a geographical, historical and sociological context. This tropical, West Virginia-sized republic, sandwiched between Nicaragua on the north and Panama on the south, was discovered in 1502 by Columbus on his fourth voyage. The great discoverer was hoping to find gold and much to his disappointment found none. Indeed, there was no gold—the baubles worn by the coastal tribes had reached Costa Rica by trade with Mexico and Panama. This fact made it easier for the Conquistadores to rub out the Indians in good conscience.
The Ticos—as Costa Ricans are known from their habit of placing a Spanish diminutive ending on every other noun—are generally a happy, helpful lot. Though handmade oxcarts still do most of the hauling in the backcountry, one sees little of the grinding poverty evident elsewhere in Latin America. Outside of the major cities—San Jos�, the capital, with a population of 612,000, Cartago (198,000), Puntarenas (210,000) and Liberia (189,000)—the 20th century atmosphere of neon and plastic rapidly gives way to the 19th, which is compounded of burnt gunpowder, cattle sweat and freshly chopped wood.
Not the least of the joys in traveling through rural Costa Rica is a sense of having been transported backward in time to pioneer America, with all its courage, self-reliance and cruelty. The machete replaces the ax, but it is just as sharp; the rifle may burn smokeless powder, but it is just as trusty—and rusty—as great granddad's Hawken. The psychic echoes vibrate at every bend: a troop of drovers cantering their ponies through the Brahma country, sitting on their mounts with the fluidity of men who spend 12 hours a day in the saddle; a dugout canoe racing the dusk down a jungle river, paddled by a drunken woman who is singing as she transports her snoring husband home from the trading post; a homesteader shucking the armor from an armadillo he has surprised and beheaded in his corn patch—meat for the pot. Ah, yes. The Ticos at work and the Ticos at play. Like their gringo cousins of a century ago, there is little to distinguish between the two conditions, as the following Adventures hope to disclose.
NIGHT OF THE IGUANA
"You don't know what lonesome is," said Dr. Ken Hayes, "until you try to declaw an ocelot." The good doctor was hunched hugely over a rum and water in the bar of the Hotel Cayuga, explaining his reasons for giving up a $150,000-a-year veterinary practice in Los Angeles in favor of life as an expatriate freebooter in Costa Rica. Outside, the night life of Puntarenas, Costa Rica's principal Pacific seaport, was switching on: ambitious shoeshine boys sizing up the passing footwear like so many Hispanic Horatio Algers; hardhanded commercial fishermen squinting the day's sunlight from their eyes; garrulous gaggles of Japanese merchant sailors waddling to the brothels. And coveys of tantalizing Ticas, minuscule and bursting with a pretty naivet�, were indulging themselves in the ancient Latin rite of the paseo—the evening parade of pulchritude.