Costa Rica – with its exceptionally warm people, stable government, spectacular mountains, beaches, and biodiversity – is not un-Eden-like. (There’s even a snake.)

Its President won the Nobel Peace Prize. The coffee is good.

But, oh, the bridges.

GETTING THERE

Our particular little piece of paradise can be accessed one of the three ways. From San Jose (to which American, Continental, Delta, and USAir all fly):

  1. Take a 25-minute hop to Quepos, just 33 kilometers from our front door . . . except that the hop to Quepos is over a mountain range in a 12-seat single-engine plane . . . unless you take a 30-or-more-minute taxi ride to San Jose’s domestic Tobias Airport (I kid you not) to catch a 12-seat twin-engine plane . . . which is probably not worth the extra hassle, since the real danger you face is not the scary flight but those final 33 kilometers from Quepos.
  • OR
  1. Drive from San Jose through the mountains to our door – safe (and surpassingly beautiful) in the hands of our driver – but four to five hours.
  • OR
  1. Drive from San Jose to the Pacific Coast and then south to Quepos and, yes, those final 33 kilometers from Quepos – which could save you an hour, but did I mention those bridges?

In a year or two, those 33 kilometers – 20.5 miles – will be paved and all 14 bridges from Quepos Airport will be replaced with – how about this for starters? – two-lane bridges. Work has already begun. But at the moment, the road is dust and rock (mainly dust, when you’re behind another vehicle) and the bridges allow traverse in only one direction at a time.

Ten of the 14 bridges seem solid. Three of them lack sides. (Oh, the things we take for granted.) Worse, they lack some of their slats. You can see down through the gaps to the river bed below. And because you are frequently following directly behind an 18-wheeler (with another behind you), you can assume the bridge will collapse and you will die at almost any moment.

(The 14th bridge gives you an option: take the left lane to cross it; or take the right lane and just drive down through the water and up onto the other side. A crocodile supposedly lives in one of the rivers, but I don’t think it’s this one.)

In short, you would be insane to drive yourself to paradise, which is why we will have Magdiel or Jose pick you up at either airport, for your choice of #1, #2 or #3. It’s included in the price.

Next time, I’ll probably fly to and from Quepos. But I will never regret or forget yesterday morning’s drive through the mountains (#2, above). Complete with a cooler for water and soft drinks, a rest stop in the clouds at 10,000 feet (look! humming birds!), and a ceiling-mounted DVD player on which you could watch a 90-minute English-language Costa Rican travelogue (or DVDs of your own) – but we didn’t, because the view is just too compelling.

The vans we send for you seat up to five in sprawling luxury; up to ten (plus the driver) if configured in three rows of three plus one passenger riding shotgun.

We do not warrant that Magdiel or Jose will not send you careening to a fiery death; only that big trucks routinely make these trips, and that Magdiel and Jose have a great deal of experience, plus kids they’d be loath to orphan.

No matter what, it’s pretty much a full day each way. Some of it is fun or beautiful, but that’s a lot of travel for a weekend. Better to go for a week.

THERE

Ah – and look at this. With all this blather, perhaps you didn’t even notice it, but up ahead is the sign for Las Brisas Del Paraiso / Paradise Breezes.

We’re there!

Having once titled a book chapter ‘Never Buy Real Estate Over the Phone,’ here I had gone and done it again. And in a language I don’t even speak.

(Como se dice, ‘el grande money pit?’)

I, for one, was very curious to see what I had invested in.

Upon arrival I still had the flu (compliments of the demon child), so my reporting may be skewed, but here’s an overview:

The three homes at Paradise Breezes are not up to the standard of $30,000-a-week rentals in St. Bart’s (as one of our number gently let me know) – but their views (he allowed) ‘are A-plus’ and the homes themselves ‘rate an A.’

How wrong can you go with marble showers, granite countertops (I would have gone with the plastic, myself), and a small infinity pool?

Oh, you can quibble that some of the flat screen TVs are too small, but that’s only because some of the bedrooms are too big.

And, sure, with one of the houses, the washer-dryer is in a utility room out back, not directly inside the house. But let the maid worry about that.

The thing is . . . the overarching point . . . the transcendency . . . is that when you look over the greenery below and 30 miles out across the Pacific . . . no one deserves even this much luxury, let alone whatever goes on in St. Bart’s.

WARNING!

Renting a house for $4,000 a week is nuts – that money should go to fund a Roth IRA. ‘Nuff said. Stay home.

WARNING!
The bugs are as big as birds (we saw a grasshopper that may have been an iguana) and not only does the Garden of Eden have ‘a snake,’ it is famous for its snakes. But none of us saw one (we were 8 in all), and I’m told that they are more afraid of us than we are of them – although this cannot possibly be true in my case.

WARNING!

They have poisonous toads. One lick and you’re dead. Even touching one if you have an open wound will likely kill you, the toxin on their skin is so strong. (And sure, you’re not walking around with an open wound now, but what if you are running back through the rain forest after being bitten by a snake?)

WARNING!

There are rip tides. People have drowned. The beach in front of your house is 150 yards wide at low tide, with fine dark sand that stretches for miles in either direction. On Sunday morning, six other people shared it. The water was warm, the body surfing gently magnificent – but there are no life guards.

(If you are ever sucked out to sea in a rip tide, just relax and paddle laterally, parallel to the beach. Once you escape the pull of the rip tide – they are generally fairly narrow – you can ride a wave back to shore.)

WARNING!

There are sharks in the ocean (though not in any particular abundance down our way, so far as I know). There are also whales that could, I have read, swallow you (and that you just might be able to spot with binoculars from your balcony).

WARNING!

Costa Rica lies just north of the Equator. The sun is very hot. You need to wear #30 or #50 sunscreen at all times – even if you’re out for just a few minutes going from one shady place to another.

WARNING!

An ‘infinity’ pool is not infinitely deep; it is so called because its ‘negative edge’ is meant to blend into the horizon. Be careful: even at their deepest, our pools are not deep enough for diving – NO DIVING. (And it’s just possible you could float over the infinity edge and tumble down the side of the mountain, but I haven’t tried it to see.)

WARNING!

Our homes are not child-proofed. There are lots of things to fall off of, bang your head against, or drown in. The truth is, I’m a little worried even about adults, if they’ve had a drink or simply fail to watch where they’re going.

WARNING!

Finally, on the driveway up to your home, you really need to be careful not to hit the gas when you mean to hit the brake, or go into reverse when you mean to go forward, or panic as you let out the clutch and begin rolling backwards before you engage first gear. The driveway is paved (we are very proud of that), but it is steep. And there are places you could go over the side if, through some automotive mismanagement, you were to leave the road.

NOT A WARNING

Guess what? The water’s fine. It’s still probably a good idea to stick with bottled, the first gallon of which we supply. But for teeth brushing and ice slurping and coffee making, it should be a non-issue.

BEING THERE

There is nothing to do in paradise (part of its charm) – or lots, depending on your point of view.

Unless you truly want to just hole up for a few days, which is by no means the worst fate I can imagine, anything you want to do will require an expensive rental from Alamo or National – four-wheel drive recommended. But I don’t want you renting it at the Quepos Airport, because then you’d have to drive those 33 kilometers yourself. We can have it delivered to you at your door.

(Yes, you could walk down from your house to the road, but walking back up would not be most people’s idea of a vacation; and there is no satisfactory way to walk to the beach.)

> Scenario #1

You wake up with the sun and laze in bed for an hour watching it climb over the Pacific. Check CNN or Bloomberg News if you like, check your email if our broadband is working (it should be, but this is Costa Rica), phone home to gloat about how warm it is (my Cingular wireless cell worked basically fine, though at a price).

You and yours have some coffee (your house will be stocked with the basics when you arrive), then drive carefully down our driveway to the dust-and-rock 33 kilometer main road, turning left (South – away from Quepos and those bridges).

All of 50 or 100 yards down the road is a wonderfully friendly little 10-table open air restaurant. (Like most of the area establishments, it has a high roof to keep out the rain; ceiling fans, and open sides.) There’s ‘arroz con pollo’ and burgers and even vanilla ice cream with caramel sauce and coffee. But in case you like ceviche, you can get it in three sizes, 500, 1000, and 1500 colones ($1, $2, and $3), at least as fresh and delicious as it would be in Miami for five times the price.

But wait – it’s too early to eat. Keep driving.

About a kilometer further down the road on your right you see the perpetually patronless Iguana Bar (either that or its clientele are literally iguanas, too short on their bar stools to be seen from the road). Proceed several hundred yards further down the road to your first right, which takes you 200 yards to the beach.

Having first applied plenty of #50 sunscreen, you spend an hour or two swimming or bathing (at high tide, that 150-yard swath is just one gently sloping bathtub) . . . walking miles in either direction . . . gazing up at the lush mountainside. (Oh, look! There’s the coral-red roof of your house!)

You could probably walk all the way to Dominical, a surfer town another two or three miles south, but this is your first day, so you get back in the car and drive there instead, asking the locals (who are largely American) how to find the Internet Café.

With luck, you will not need the café because its eight computer stations have only dialup. But adjoining it is a restaurant that makes a French-toast cube stuffed with tropical fruit that will leave you thinking life is just too good.

After exploring Dominical a bit, and maybe watching a few surfers surfing (think California 1960s, kids on hammocks and sleeping in their cars), you head back up to the house to take a dip in the pool, shower, and then, at the height of the sun, enjoy the air conditioning as you begin one of the delicious little novels you brought with you.

(I brought Chris Buckley’s forthcoming Boomsday and Patty Marx’s Him Her Him Again the End of Him. One of my pals brought Jeffrey Archer’s Kane & Abel, he loved it so much the first time years ago.)

Round about 4pm your masseur arrives with his table, for those who want a laying on of hands as the sun begins to set. And round about the same time, Wilbur arrives – having shopped – to begin to prepare dinner. (We are a resortlet, not the Four Seasons, so these kinds of things generally have to be arranged the day before.) There was some argument among our group as to whether Wilbur should be called a cook or a chef. Most thought the food was great and that he looked terrific in his chef’s jacket. On St. Bart’s, he would be the cook.

While Wilbur works, come sip some wine on the balcony and watch the sun set. Or sip and watch from the Jacuzzi. But really, folks, isn’t it warm enough in Costa Rica without needing a Jacuzzi? Why does everyone insist on a Jacuzzi?

Okay. Dinner is served. Wilbur, like all the Costa Ricans we met, gives you a genuinely warm handshake and smile as he comes and goes. (Don’t be surprised – or put off. The Costa Rican custom is for everyone to shake hands.)

In case you’ve choose to make dinner yourselves, without help, don’t worry about cleaning up. Melba will take care of all that for you in the morning.

To bed. The sun rises at 5:47 am. The black out curtains will spare you that, but you may soon come not to want to be spared.

> Scenario #2

Okay, you’re up and, raring to go, you drive carefully down our driveway, turning left (away from Quepos and the bridges) and proceeding even a little beyond our beach to the nearest zip-lining rainforest tour, less than 10 minutes from your door. The two-hour tours, offered thrice daily beginning at 8am, involve a gentle guided hike through the rain forest and a gentle push (once you’re strapped in) along a zip-line from one tree-top to another (and then another).

I know all this because St. Bart’s himself took the tour and pronounced it ‘just right.’ I stayed behind because under no circumstances did I want to see a toad or a snake or a monkey. I prefer the Discovery Channel. (Charles might have been up for it, but he was stuck in New York designing Fall.)

Back in the car, it’s not even 11am and you head for the beach – sunscreen! – and then, after a suitable swim, stop at the foot of our mountain for some ceviche and a cold Coke or beer.

Then up to the house . . . frolic . . . the novel . . . do some emails . . . sunset . . . and, driving very carefully, back down the hill and off to Dominical in shorts and flip flops for a 75,000 colones dinner at one of the area’s nicest restaurants. That’s $150, including wine, tax and tip, for six. The second night, at a Thai place, it was 72,000 colones for eight. And these delicious eateries were the most expensive we could find.

Along the way to dinner, you might stop alongside the road at the huge fruit-and-vegetable stand and pick up enough tomatoes and mangoes and bananas to keep you happy and healthy for the rest of your stay.

> And More

Also driving South – away from Quepos and those bridges – you will find more beaches, snorkeling – all kinds of stuff. This afore-linked Dominical web site suggests surfing, bird-watching, sport-fishing and kick-boxing lessons. Drive up into the mountains toward San Isidro and you can join a horseback tour. Or drive north 38 kilometers, just past the Quepos Airport, to Manuel Antonio, a beautiful and much larger resort town – but accessible only by traversing even more insane bridges.

All preposterously dangerous, if you ask me.

The amazing thing is that, just 5 kilometers south of us, even before you get to Dominical, the dust-and-rock road suddenly becomes Connecticut – a road like any other. One day in the not too distant future, even the 33 kilometers will be like this.

For now, I just want to sit reading my book, dazzled by the view and all but overcome at my good fortune in being able to enjoy this for a few days. I’ll save for another day the contrast of my experience with that of the workers who lived fifteen to a tin shack on the mountainside building our magnificent houses.

 

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