The Godfather of Guanacaste

Sprawling Fernando 1998

When I met Fernando in 1998, he was a lowly park ranger. Now, I’ve come to think of him as the Godfather of Guanacaste.

Gimme a hug

He seems to know everyone in Liberia, forever greeting acquaintances with a smile and a hug. A spirited conversation (mostly unintelligible to me) erupts, everyone laughs heartily, and then we are being shown to the best table or ushered through the gate without paying the entrance fee.

Fernando calendar
He’s on a calendar. Of course he is.

Fernando earned it. He may have started out as a park ranger, but he finished as el jefe of the entire park. Now, with a PhD under his belt, Fernando is the BMOC (Big Muchacho on Campus). He teaches business classes at two universities, as well as volunteering for a local organization helping women start small businesses.

I am particularly susceptible to falling under Fernando’s spell, since having a native Spanish speaker with me makes the ride so much smoother. Oh yeah: the ride. Fernando has a car, and morning after morning he picked me up and shuttled us off to another tourist hotspot, be it his favorite beach (Playa del Coco) or the local volcano (Volcan Rincon de la Vieja).


On my last evening in Costa Rica, Fernando chose a nice restaurant on the outskirts of town, and I chose ceviche. We both requested our entrees without mayonnaise, so, interpreting this to mean that we love mayo, they drenched our chips in it (plus ketchup). Yuck.


It was a low-key meal. My thoughts strayed to flying home and re-entering the workforce after 21 months of (intentional) unemployment. Then they wandered to nostalgia for my previous trips to Costa Rica, when I first met Fernando. Those days, I realized, aren’t lost- there’s still fun to be had in CR, and after all these years, Fernando is still sitting across from me (and translating for me… and shuttling me around… and booking hotels for me).

Muchas gracias, amigo.

Makes me think I should hook up with a friend on all my future trips. Hmm, who do I know in the Czech Republic? And Kenya? And Antarctica?


Returning, Remembering

I woke up in Nicaragua, but my mind was already back in Costa Rica. After a couple relaxing days in Granada, I wanted to spend the majority of my last day of vacation with my friend Fernando.

The chicken bus

So it was that I found myself on a cramped local bus (what the locals call the chicken bus) at 6:35am, an elderly woman’s ample bosom squished against my shoulder. At her stop, she extracted the fare from her bra and paid the attendant, while a young mother and her baby moved into her spot. The child played with the straps of my backpack, which I allowed until she started putting them in her mouth.

From my seat near the front, staring past the driver, I could see all the gauges on the dashboard… and I could see that none of them worked. One may only guess at the vehicle’s kilometers/hour, pressure, temperature, or total engine hours. Those of you planning a trip to Nicaragua, please note that for a few dollars more, one can traverse this route in a modern bus. Next time, I’ll do so.

At the border, my thoughts turned to scams. My friend Beth had warned me of one in which Westerners crossing back into Costa Rica are told they need to pay fees of one hundred dollars or more to exit the country. After paying three dollars worth of legit exit fees, I was ready- nay, eager- to wave my receipts in a scammer’s face, but no such opportunity presented itself.

IMG_8511 welcome to Costa Rica

Like Dorothy emerging into a Technicolor Oz, I felt my spirits lift as I entered Costa Rica. A clearly-marked route led to an orderly line, and soon enough I was on a southbound bus. A bus with functional gauges.

The driver was kind enough to make an unscheduled stop, dropping me at ACG, the Area de Conservación Guanacaste.

ACG is the national park where Fernando and I first met in 1998, where the Milwaukee Public Museum team’s labors were recorded by their video crew (including me).

Now, in 2013, Fernando’s car pulled up to the ranger station, and I was reunited with mi amigo. We drove into ACG, back where it all began. As you can see, it was a solemn occasion for us both.

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Fernando parked the car, we walked into the comedor (dining hall), and the memories came flooding back. The cafeteria meal still consists of rice, beans, and mystery meat, with a generous dollop of Lizano sauce. Back in ’98, I brought a bottle home, not realizing that my local Mexican grocery store carried it.

Fernando walked me to the research building where we worked (slathering plaster on people to turn them into mannequins) and the dorm where we slept (four to a room in the April heat).

The buildings’ new paint job did nothing to slow the flood of recollections: this is where we saw an aguti… that’s where we stored the video gear… this is where I showered with a scorpion (just a little one).

As Fernando greeted his former co-workers, I lingered at the dorm building. Just moments before losing me to the grip of existential nostalgic angst, my friend pulled me back to reality and drove me further into the park, to La Casona (the large country estate).

La Casona History
La Casona

In a sense, this is the Costa Rican Alamo. In 1856, When William Walker’s filibusters swept into this country bent on conquest, the Ticos drew the line right here: no one gets past La Casona. And no one did. Walker withdrew to Nicaragua and before long was driven out of Central America… and back to the US, where he was welcomed as a hero. Oops.

Manifest Destiny
Um, sorry about that whole Manifest Destiny thing

According to a sign in the museum, “The Campaign is considered a crucial episode in defining Costa Rican identity.”

La Casona 1998
La Casona 1998

I’m grateful that I saw this national landmark in 1998, because arsonists torched it in 2001. Fernando and I are visiting the rebuilt version (the handicapped access ramp and robust fire suppression system are dead giveaways).

Our time travels complete, Fernando and I climbed into the car and made our exit. Do we have to? I couldn’t help but feel wistful, walking in the footsteps of a younger me.

Exploring Life on Earth was the Milwaukee Public Museum’s last grand expedition before its budget troubles hit, and corporate videos far outnumbered museum videos in my future.

But I’ll always have a piece of ACG in my heart… and on the second floor of MPM!

Exploring Life on Earth


My Mombacho

One full day in Granada, Nicaragua. Two possible pursuits: climb the volcano, or cruise around the islands.

I’m a sucker for volcanoes. I’ve gotten closeup views of the calm kind (Mount Saint Helens in Washington state), the smoky kind (Volcán de Fuego in Mexico), and the lava-spewing kind (Arenal in Costa Rica, before the show abruptly ceased in 2010). Now, the magnetic pull of Volcán Mombacho is drawing me into a taxi and onto the dusty road out of town.

Road to Mombacho

A few córdobas (well, actually, they collected it in dollars) gains one admission to the Reserva Natural Volcán Mombacho, and for a total of US$15, one also receives a ride to the top in the back of a pickup truck. Well worth it versus walking.

Januar, not Jaguar

A gaggle of guides lies in wait at the visitor center, and I hired young Januar to accompany me on the Sendero la Puma, a 4-kilometer trail around the crown of the crater. Since its last eruption in 1570, the volcano has been covered over with lush jungle- I was surprised to find myself thinking of New Zealand while hiking in Nicaragua.

Januar (gringos usually can’t remember his name, so he tells them to call him Jaguar instead) and I explored, getting in touch with our inner Tarzan. Sorry about the poor audio quality.

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Back in town, I grabbed a meal and hit the museum at the Convento San Francisco.

You know, whispers the diabolical part of my mind, maybe I didn’t have to choose between the volcano and the islands. There’s still time to visit the shore of Lago Nicaragua- the huge lake that contains Las Isletas. There are said to be 365 islands in the bay… which sounds like a suspiciously convenient number to me. I had glimpsed some of them from atop Mombacho.

Las Isletas en la distancia

As illustrated by the museum’s scale model of the city, reaching the shore simply requires getting from here…

Parque model

… to here.

Centro model

How hard can it be? I wasn’t keen on a horse-drawn carriage ride, so I waited for a taxi. Over the course of several minutes, every single one that passed was occupied. How far can it be? I started walking.

It wasn’t a difficult walk; it was just difficult doing it three hours after circumnavigating a volcanic crater. My legs were killing me. Add to that my suspicion that the lakeshore would be hugely anticlimactic. After all, this isn’t tourist season, and I was walking to an area named Centro Turistico.

Centro avenue

The wide avenues were empty, except for work crews patching the sidewalk. Would this be yet another instance where I expend too much effort for too little reward?

Thankfully, not this time. A young woman- clearly a fellow tourist- had been walking ahead of me for several blocks, and when we wound up viewing the lake from the same vantage point, she struck up a conversation. I’m glad she took the initiative, since I generally don’t accost solo female travelers on deserted streets, figuring they get too much male attention as it is.

Centro street

Veronique and I walked together through forlorn Centro Turistico, a collection of shoddy bars and restaurants. A few boats bobbed in the lake, their captains no doubt wishing for the high season’s throngs of tourists.

Lago Nicaragua tour boats

Exploring this area would have been the feared letdown, if not for the interesting conversation with my newfound friend. Veronique, a French-speaking Canadian, was living with a local family and learning Spanish, so we bounced among three languages to get our meanings across (“Tell me about your clase de español, s’il vous plaît.”).

And yes, Veronique confirmed, she does indeed get altogether too much attention from local men- they whistle and yell things as she walks around town. Machismo is alive and well in Granada.

Veronique et Ken

A few of Centro Turistico’s bars were open for business and neither of us had tried Nicaragua’s national beer, so we stopped off for a cold Toña before walking back downtown and parting ways.

Cerveza Toña

From volcanoes to lakes to creepy mannequins, it was an enjoyable day, made all the more so by the “real Tarzan” tour guide and the Québecoise traveler I shared it with.

Now, to get some sleep and store up energy for tomorrow’s departure from Granada… aboard the chicken bus.