The Coast of Costa Rica

My Yaris

After a couple days teaching and adventuring with Fernando at my side, I rented a car and struck out on my own. Easy to do, since Costa Rica is one of the most developed, stable countries in Central America. They actually have things like safety regulations and paved roads.

Safer motorcycling

Motorcycles and mopeds are all the rage around Liberia, but unlike what Karen and I saw in Asia, riders here don helmets, wear reflective vests, and limit the number of passengers to something resembling the manufacturer’s specifications.

Then again, this is still Central America. Eventually that paved road runs out.

[youtube_sc url=””]

At least that road leads to Playa del Coco, where Ticos and tourists alike were out enjoying the warm (like, 97 degrees Fahrenheit) day. I decided to cool off with a local treat.

[youtube_sc url=””]

Yep, that’s how I eat without Karen along to guide my culinary choices. Good thing she’s usually along.

The following morning was devoted to scuba diving. Since I earned my certification in Australia, diving has added more depth (get it, depth?) to how I experience coastal locales. I booked two dives with a company headquartered at Playa Ocotal. They set me up with a full complement of rented gear and whisked me to aptly-named Monkey Island.

It was just me and the divemaster on this excursion; he gave a quick description of the site and jumped into the water. Um, no buddy check? I ran down the safety checklist in my head and buddy-checked myself, but I’d feel more comfortable with another set of eyes on everything. Perhaps there’s a reason no one else booked with this company today.

Unfortunately, visibility is not great in the waters on the Pacific side of Costa Rica. For dazzling, Bonaire-like scenes, head for the Caribbean coast. Fortunately, I knew what to expect. I was happy to be back in the deep and pleasantly surprised at how bathwater-warm the water was (except for some startling thermoclines, where the temperature suddenly plunges).

[youtube_sc url=””]

Highlights for me were the green turtle who swam by, the spiny sea urchins that look like they’re staring at you with one eyeball, and the stingrays- lying around, swimming alone, and swimming in pairs.

At the second site, the water was colder and the visibility worse, so we had clearly peaked early. Saw a few more stingrays. For now, I wouldn’t herald Costa Rica as a diving mecca, but it was a fun morning… and there’s still the Caribbean side.

Beach boat

My real reason for being on the Pacific coast isn’t granizados or diving. A friend of mine from high school just happens to be spending a year in Costa Rica, teaching nearby. Next Stop: Beth’s place!


Rockin’ the Rincon

Most visitors to Costa Rica arrive in San Jose, stop off in the rainforest of Manuel Antonio National Park, and then hit the beaches. Not me. Mi amigo Fernando lives in the drier northwest of the country, so that’s where my excursions tend to be.

Volcan Rincon de la Vieja is an active volcano surrounded by a national park. Its most recent eruption was in September 2011, so it’s no surprise that the hiking trail around the crater is closed. Fernando and I instead hiked through the surrounding forest, marveling at ropey tree trunks and gurgling mud pools.

And while we’re here, why not go ziplining? From an educational standpoint, careening past an area’s flora and fauna at great speed is pretty pointless. But it sure is fun!

[youtube_sc url=”″]

Done right, ziplining isn’t particularly dangerous. That said, Fernando and I both raised an eyebrow at this crew’s antics, goofing around and chattering on as they leapt from platform to platform. Some of the things they said were, Fernando reported, not particularly professional. He declined to translate.

Despite our best efforts, Fernando had to convey some bad news to Karen:

[youtube_sc url=””]

At least I hope she would consider that bad news. Somehow, I survived. Taking a break at a restaurant, we got a front-seat view of how Ticos herd horses…

Horse highway

Horse herding

… And people. Old US school buses are a common sight on the roads here, though the giveaway text is usually painted over.

Burlington school bus

It was a tiring and exhilarating day. And a dirty one, as I discovered when I took off my socks. That’s not a suntan- just a couple layers of Costa Rican dust.

A line in the sand


Señor Profesor Ken

Head of the class

Within fourteen hours of landing in Liberia, Guanacaste province, Costa Rica, I found myself addressing a classroom full of students at the National University. To figure out how I got here, we need to go back in time.

In 1998, a team of scientists and artists from the Milwaukee Public Museum journeyed to the dry, dusty Area de Conservación Guanacaste outside Liberia. Their mission: gather the materials to create MPM’s new Exploring Life on Earth exhibit. Lucky for me, video was a major component of the exhibit, so I got to go along.

For a couple weeks, I got paid to hang out in Costa Rica, recording audio while my colleague Dan shot footage of tiny ants, leaping monkeys, and arid landscapes. When our workday was through, we kicked back with cold (as cold as we could make them, anyway) bottles of Imperial under the tropical stars.

Fernando in the forest
Neil from MPM consults with Fernando from ACG

That’s how I met Fernando. While we worked with many Costa Ricans during our stay, Fernando was the one I really connected with. A park ranger at ACG, he was our fixer: tell him what you need, and he’ll make it happen. Our ages and senses of humor were similar, and he’s the one Tico- that is, Costa Rican- I kept in touch with once we returned home. Exploring Life on Earth opened in 2000 with Fernando in attendance, and it’s still serving visitors today. (Look for my cameo as you click through the interactive video screens.)

Costa Rica exhibit
Sadly, there’s no mannequin of Fernando
Fernando's cameo
But he does get a cameo on the far right of this panel

For our first big trip after getting married, Karen and I chose to visit Costa Rica. I showed Karen around ACG, where Fernando was rising in the ranks, and he also helped us reach parts of this beautiful country I missed last time: an active volcano, a cloud forest, a black sand beach.

Three amigos

A decade later, with Karen already working and my start date approaching, Costa Rica was a prime candidate for my one-last-trip-before-I-go-back-to-work vacation.

IMG_7693 Fernando at university

A park ranger no more, Fernando has earned his PhD and begun teaching, which is how I wound up in front of an English class at Universidad Nacional. Luckily, he warned me about my academic engagement in advance, so I brought photos of the MPM exhibit and explained about the slice of Costa Rica that lives in Milwaukee.

Visual aids

During the Q&A, I covered the differences between Texan and Minnesotan accents (they’ve never heard of the movie Fargo), drew a stunningly-accurate US map, and promoted Milwaukee as a filming location for Transformers 3 (they’ve heard of that).

Classroom against a dry backdrop

Several of the students spoke excellent English- and asked most of the questions. Others were more reticent, and given the sorry state of my Spanish these days, I can easily empathize.

Campus aerial
The Universidad Nacional campus
Dry forest university
Dry forest in all directions

Fernando gave me the grand tour of his campus, its open-air classrooms situated in the midst of a dry forest. And it was hot. Like 95 degrees Fahrenheit. I don’t know how the students think straight in this heat. And I don’t know how the male students get any work done with their female counterparts running around in the shortest shorts and least clothing possible. (I’m not sure whether the guys’ appearance is equally distracting to the señoritas).

IMG_0949 U sign

With my “work” complete, it’s time to go on vacation. Next stop: a volcano!