This is the actual transcription of my travel journal from my recent trip to Costa Rica.
Sitting at a bar near my gate in the Houston airport. Had a big pretzel and just ordered a Goose Island IPA. I'm on my way to Costa Rica. Tonight I will arrive in San Jose and check in to Holiday Inn Express. This trip is different from most because – like my first trip to Costa Rica – I'm first conducting business, visiting Fincas Cafe con Amor and Sircof, and then going on an adventure. My first trip to CR I took my mountain bike and hit the road, eventually making my way back up to Hacienda La Minita. This time I will take a bus to the town of El Castillo, near Arenal Volcano, and run in an 80K (50 mile) foot race through the rainforest. I'm nervous, but ready for action I guess. I hope all goes well.
I'm at a restaurant called Rosti Pollo. Ordered a chicken sandwich, fries, a chicken empanada, and Imperial. Cerveza. Twice I have gotten food poisoning – once in Colombia, once in Nicaragua. In Costa Rica I'm pretty sure it was salmonella. In Nicaragua I stayed in my hotel room all day and felt like I might perish. Both times were from chicken empanadas. So it feels risky and dumb to order one but I did. I love empanadas.
Staying at Holiday Inn Express. It's nice enough. Rosti Pollo is across the street next to the casino. Tomorrow Jon and Marianela Jost will pick me up at 9a and take me to their farm. I'm interested to see what they have going on. Greg Peterson is friends with Jon and told me Jon was a very successful college strength and conditioning coach for his career.
At passport control, the officer seemed very suspicious of me. He looked everything over and asked lots of questions. I told him I have friends here. Which is true. What the hell does he care? What could I possibly be doing that's so suspicious? Maybe I'm just naive.
At the Costa Rica Beer Factory in Plaza Real in Alajuela. I walked about 1.5 miles from the hotel. Staying at Holiday Inn Express again near the airport. I'm drinking an local pale ale which hasn't been carbonated long enough in the keg. It's underwhelming. Ordered ceviche.
Yesterday Marianella and Jon Jost picked me up at the hotel around 920a. We drove to their farm near Naranjo. It's off a side road, through a nondescript gate. An agronomist named Aaron met us and we talked with him about some problems on the farm. The total area of the farm isn't very big and it's divided into 13 lots. The borders of the farm and individual lots follow contour lines in the land. Ridge lines, creek beds, etc. The whole thing is sort of shaped like an inverted Italy. A few areas had trees that weren't healthy. One section of CR95 variety was dying. Just over a short ridge, a neighbor's farm looked as if it were abandoned. Aaron thinks the unhealthy trees were not quality specimens when planted and maybe were not fertilized properly in the first year. He took soil samples and recommended uprooting the affected trees and replanting new. The Josts want to plant Villa Sarchi variety anyway.
We went to other sections of the farm to collect soil samples anywhere the trees were not so healthy. In total we dug 4 samples. This consisted of digging a small hole straight down about one foot and scraping a small amount of dirt from the bottom – maybe a quart. We did this 3-4 times in each affected section and mixed them in a bucket before putting some dirt in a plastic bag and labeling the lot# and sample#. These will go to a lab for analysis to see what nutrients are lacking and if there are any fungus in the soil. Aaron also cut 3 small sections of trunks from dead coffee trees to take to the lab.
The ceviche came with fried plantain chips. Excellent. Now drinking Toro Sentado IPA. Spicy. Still a little flat.
Marianella talked to their new farm manager-in-training. He was spraying the trees with a foliage nutrient and the hose had been leaking and they lost a lot of expensive chemicals. Jon and I continued collecting soil samples and then went to the casita. They have 10 pickers in the harvest. They live in the casita. It's primitive, but Jon built beds and they rebuilt the facilities. Small outdoor kitchen with running spring water and wood cooking stove. The bathroom had a pot with a drain for the sink and a watering can mounted to the wall where the spring water came out for a shower.
He told me they had been generous to the workers, bringing them food and drink during the days and small parties on weekends. With 10 days left in the harvest, the family left in the night. He thinks it's because they are paying more than normal and they made the amount of money they were planning and left – back to Nicaragua maybe. Other area farmers were also using their labor and all were left without help. The Josts had to scramble to hire more workers and paid double.
Upstairs from the worker housing was a really cool covered deck with a beautiful view. He said they don't spend much time there because they work a lot and they can't keep anything on-site because of theft – they've been broken into twice.
I hope I don't get mugged on the way back to the hotel. Shady walk.
Costa Rican girls are so beautiful.
Walked back to the hotel. Busy streets. Dark sidewalks. A guy was spraying with a hose a car that was parked with 2 wheels on the sidewalk. He stopped spraying so I could walk through. Walking by inhabited and abandoned bus stops, by one unused cement park bench rested a half-dozen shoes. Maybe all left foot shoes. All without a match - a sandal, a contemporary woman's wedge, a boy's tennie, etc. I felt as if these were clues to a serial killer. The bus stop killer. A bit later I crossed the railroad tracks that I thought were not in use and as I was crossing I heard some sharp, loud horn blows. I looked up and saw a passenger train barreling around the curve toward me at 50mph. I hustled down the sidewalk. the train light shined in my eyes. And then the rumble of the sidewalk and the burst of winds as the train railed past 4 feet from my shoulder. Shortly after that a car was on the sidewalk in front of me, letting a woman out. To my right were endless shanties – the kind of concrete block and corrugated metal buildings where you can't tell the beginning of one or the end of another. Windows and curtains, sparsely lit rooms. The car skimmed past me and the woman walked quickly to a door – nervously eyeing me walking toward her, she quickly opened the door, slipped inside, and as I approached she quickly shut and locked the door from inside.
After we left Finca Cafe con Amor, we went into Naranjo for lunch. I had the plato tipico – rice, beans, chicken, salad, ripe plantains, and some slightly vulgar-tasting, cubed vegetable.
At the restaurant was a new coffee bar. It wasn't open yet but they had a nice new espresso machine. The restaurant owners' uncle owns a farm 2 km up the road and they are selling his coffee. Beautiful packaging.
After lunch we went to the wet mill where the Josts take all their coffee. It's called Herbazú and is owned by Manuel Antonio Barrantes. He won Cup of Excellence in 2015 at $41.20 per pound, raking in over $64,000. His milling equipment is really small but very clean. The astounding thing was the size of his patio. It reminded me of the patios in Guatemala. They say the coffee is spread on the concrete patio for a day, then put in his covered patio – which had a dome of plastic and was equally large. At some moisture content, it is moved to raised beds in the sun to finish. In this area, Manuel Antonio's family seems to be building houses. Nice houses.
Marianella and Jon rent a house in Sarchi. It is an amazing house. Gated. Huge yard with horse stables where they store their parchment coffee. The house is immaculate – remodeled and very nice. I was super jealous. We made tacos and ate out on the patio. So nice. I spent the night in their guest bedroom. This morning I got up and made us coffee. Jon made eggs with onion, pepper, etc.
At the Hamburguesería in Plaza Real Alajuela again. Took 25 minutes to walk here. I'm the only person in the restaurant. There must be a school nearby – a lot of kids hanging around. Some of the same teenagers I saw last night. I haven't done anything today except pack up and eat breakfast. I grabbed half a bagel and jelly for breakfast tomorrow.
So yesterday morning we drove to Finca Sircof. I met Marcos Oviedo, whose Sircof Venecia Honey I roasted last November. Marcos seems very nice, laid back, and knowledgeable. We walked around his farm. A lot of early flowering. The farm is very clean, organized, and scenic. He trims the bottom branches from all his trees so there is a 1 foot gap between the lowest branches and the ground. This creates a much cleaner-looking farm. He says it's easier to pick. And when they spray the undersides of the leaves, it's easier also. Marcos says when you look under the trees you should be able to see if anyone is peeing on the other side of the field.
His trees all looked very healthy. He knows what variety they all are. He even stopped at one tree and said this is the most interesting tree in the farm. There are generally two trunks coming up from the plant. They cut all the rest that grow so the two can get all the energy from the root system. This tree had two trunks also, but one is a Villa Sarchi variety and the other half is something else. He says it is a mutation. The Villa Sarchi half produces very well and the other half does not. The leaves are even a different color. He says if the Villa Sarchi half has a very good cup profile, he will collect the seeds and plant them. the farmers are all looking for the next big thing. The next Gesha. The next Cup of Excellence winner.
There is a tree near his wet mill that I pulled leaves from. The tender leaves smell like potpourri and they taste like clove. It is called a Jamaica tree and they sometimes use the leaves in cooking. I'm so jealous of all the plants growing in the tropics that have interesting tastes and smells.
At 230p I'm catching a shuttle at the airport to go to El Castillo. Tomorrow morning at 6a I will begin a 50 mile race in the rainforest near Arenal Volcano. I'm getting nervous.
DoubleTree Cariari, sitting in the restaurant. Ordered an Imperial cerveza and a hamburger. The hostess here, Vivian, is so pretty and friendly. She has such a beautiful smile. My experiences of the past two days seem so surreal. I'm having a hard time even writing about them because I feel lost in thought and a distant feeling of being suspended in a dream state.
I went to the airport to catch my shuttle. The black Mercedes bus was packed and I sat in the front row between a couple guys who seemed impatient but quiet. There was a guy in the back who ran his mouth constantly for 4 hours. He told us how important he is, all the people he knows, all the places he's been – pretty much a million stories about himself. It was exhausting. To enhance the situation, the bus driver turned on 4 hours of The Bee Gees, Michael Bolton, Celine Dion, etc. It was really something.
Always good to see the country through the windows of a car. When we got close to Arenal Volcano, we stopped to take pictures. Really beautiful with clouds gathered over the peak and sunset turning them orange and yellow. Eventually we went through the touristy town of La Fortuna, then turned off the paved road onto dirt. After a bit of skirting Lago Arenal, we reached El Castillo and continued on out of town to a rough dirt track just before a broad river crossing. This was the entrance to our "hotel," Rancho Margot. I wondered how anyone ever found this place. But upon entering I saw that there were a lot of people staying there. It's a big place. With bungalows and bunkhouses. A communal dining room with buffet. I got my key and walked up the dark path to #16. Surrounded by rainforest plants, the front porch had a safari rocker, table and chairs, and a HAMMOCK! The room was nice. Sort of like being on safari, but permanent. What a relaxing place. Quiet but for the endless sounds of birds and bugs. Totally dark, but for very bright stars shining between an invisible roof of clouds. There wasn't much time to eat, sort gear, and sleep. So I went to dinner. Beans, rice, pork, fruit, the usual. I sat with a few guys from the race and we talked about our impending adventure. Basically none of us knew anything about the race. The website was sparse with no real information. No idea about the course.
After dinner I returned to my exotic abode and laid out all my clothes and gear for the race. Finished a beer and went to sleep. I always worry about oversleeping so I probably don't sleep very soundly the night before a race. My alarm finally went off at 345a to Coldplay's “Hymn for the Weekend.”
Sitting in the shade by the pool. I'm thirsty and sleepy.
We arrived at the race site at 5a, one hour before start time. Not a huge crowd. The anticipation leading up to the start is amazing. Like a horse before a horse race, entering the starting gate, nervous energy seems to pour through my body and out my fingertips. It had been raining most of the night and showed no signs of letting up. We all took off our rain jackets and stowed them in our packs and walked out into the shower to line up. The race director counted down in Spanish from 10 to 1 and we were off. It was a combined pack of 80k and 52k racers. 30 in the long race – not sure how many in the shorter, but maybe about the same. It seems we made our way up dirt trail and double-track through Rancho Margot and off into the rainforest preserve. It continued to rain for hours. The trail was mostly sticky, thick, deep mud. We climbed and climbed – slipping and sliding, trying not to fall down. The temperature was nice and the rain was cool, but the humidity was so high I was dripping sweat, completely soaked. I always go out harder than I should. I guess that's my strategy. Build a gap and then fade throughout the race, trying to hold a decent spot. So I was running amongst faster guys. I let 2 pass and suddenly they veered left off the trail. There was a ribbon on the right side of the trail and 2 ribbons on a gate to the left - which normally would indicate that the course goes left through the gate. A group of us went and some were coming back saying it was wrong – no course markings and no footprints. But that didn't make sense. We all convened to decide where to go. Some dawdled. I and another guy kept going – down a long descent. It came to another gate and below us was a farm. And no ribbons. We had taken a chance that the leaders missed the turn and went off course, but in reality we were off course. The rest of our group joined us near the bottom and we all turned around to ascend. Back through the first gate we continued on the original trail into deep mud – and a ribbon. We ascended through something like a slot canyon that probably happened naturally but the sides had been chiseled out with shovels or machetes, as indicated by the flat marks in the wet, packed sides of the narrow gorge. At some point we emerged onto a ridge and a summit, of sorts. the entire area was covered in cloud or fog. The wind blew up the side of the mountain and over the crest, pushing me sideways and pelting the right side of my face with tiny frozen water molecules. Mostly a dirt single- and double-track, the mud persisted, but now just a thinner layer on top.
Back into the thick of the forest I descended in mud so slick it was nearly impossible to stay upright. Mud, mud, more mud. Up and down the mountains. The mud was mixed with rocks, which usually were equally as slippery. It was hard to look anywhere but down, but all around was a diverse, thick forest full of birds and flowers. I was hungry. And because of the rain, I wasn't drinking enough water, though I was sweating profusely. So I got dehydrated.
This rural path eventually dumped out into a small town and the rest of the race was on dirt roads with much less mud. This was half way. The rain had stopped. And the lake was in view all the way back to the finish line. At this point it became easier to look and listen because footing was much better. The vegetation is awesome. Many things are HUGE. Big flowers and leaves and trees. Vines and epiphytes cover many trees. I saw birds of all color and song. Bright red birds with black wings. Oropendula – golden-breasted birds with nests that hang like pendulums. Flocks of squawking parakeets. A type of black and white bird that sits in the road and when I came near would jump up and flop around and land again. And again. Bright blue birds. Birds with beautiful markings. I can't even remember them all. Some had calls that sound like pigs. Some like a motorcycle. One like a sneeze – Uh- Ah- Choo! Endless sounds and sights. I saw a lot of one particular flower that caught my eye. They were small and were falling from trees. They looked just like angels. A purple skirt, orange head, and white wings behind.
Some birds sounded like when you cluck for a horse. Some like a horn honking car alarm. Then the traditional chirping and long, loud calls characteristic of a rainforest.
It's hard to describe.
At times it was like scenes from Jurassic Park – looking across a field or down a valley and seeing enormous swaths of old-growth forest, so dense and tall and mysterious. At times under the canopy it was dim and thick with hanging vines. There are many ranches in the area because among the swaths of forest are clearings of the greenest, grassy, rolling mountainsides. I wondered at one point if the cones in my eyes have become more sensitive to greens, as this is the second time in recent memory (the other in rural OK on the way to Arizona) that I have been astounded by the brightness and saturation of the green grasses.
I thought I heard a howler monkey, and today one of the other racers said he saw some. I also spooked a large animal around dusk. Sounded like it was about the size of a bear and made a barking noise like a deer.
El Novillo Alegre – Argentinian Steakhouse. I ordered chorizo and Lomito Tico – "tenderloin" steak with rice and beans and fried plantains. Delicious.
The sun came out between 25 miles and 36 miles and it got HOT. I began to suffer. The race director drove by to check on me twice. And when I got to the 4th aid station, the race medical director was there with a stethoscope around her neck. She sat me down and talked to me and checked me for fever. She said I didn't look good and she was worried I was going to start cramping and need medical assistance. I was tired and feeling mentally negative. Difficult situation. I hadn't started cramping but I knew it wasn't far off. I sat for a while and talked to the doctor, Adriana. She said that was the point of no return. The next aid station was 7 miles and then 8 to the finish, and there were 3 river crossings. There would be no one to pick me up if I got in trouble. I considered this. I rested for 25 minutes and put tape on a hot spot on my left foot. I had taken off my shoes and socks earlier and there was mud in my socks on the balls of my feet. So I turned my socks inside-out and cleaned them up as good as possible. But too late. After much consideration I felt better and convinced Adriana to let me go on. I told her I would walk the rest, but I knew that wasn't true.
The tape helped a lot and my foot wasn't hurting. I walked up hills and jogged on flats and downhills. Time and miles passed. I refueled at the final aid station. I crossed the rivers. The sun set. The clouds had reconvened across the sky and there was no light. I turned on the mini maglite I hadn't anticipated needing. Running in the night through rainforest. Different sounds. The bugs began their noisemaking, a rhythmic thrum. Trees rattled together in the breeze. Humidity seemed to rise and the wind died down. I was aware.
I didn't put fresh batteries in my flashlight and when the sun set, I still had 1.5 hours to the finish line. I turned it off now and then to see if I could run in the dark. But it was dark. I came to the final river crossing and all I could see was water. Suddenly a car on the other shore turned on its lights. Probably 50 yards of water between me and him. So I slowly picked my way, trying not to get into the deepest currents. With that crossing complete, I knew I wasn't far from town. I ran past a couple houses and lodges and restaurants. And then darkness again. And suddenly my flashlight went out. Pitch black. Nothing to see. I turned it off and on again and it lit and I ran faster. It went out again. It was on its last leg. And every time I turned it off and on, I would get another 5 seconds of light _ enough to memorize the terrain in front of me. And then the lights of the finish area appeared. After some confusion about how to get to the finish line, I crossed it around 13 hours and 30 minutes after I started. 30 minutes before the cutoff. Adriana was there and she seemed very happy for me. She said they had been talking about me, saying that I am a strong guy and even stronger mentally. That made me feel good.
I had no ride to the hotel and so I waited for Adriana to go so I could ride with her. It got colder. I borrowed money and got rice, beans, and chicken at the tienda.
Back at the hotel after 9p.
Shower, beer, sleep.
I need to catch a shuttle at noon.
Had breakfast at the hotel. It's always good. The hostess, Vivian, is so nice and always enunciates very well so I can understand her. She probably speaks English but she never has to me because I always speak to her in Spanish. I'm still basking in the tropical environment. This morning when I woke up I was thinking about the post-race elation I was feeling. The accomplishment, the soreness, the memories of sight and sounds and smells and feelings. I remember when the sun set, smelling an amazing fragrance and turning my flashlight upward to see what flower released its perfume at dusk. I remember being desperate for calories and drinking a soda called Malta and eating a banana. The flavors I burped up on the trail were interesting. I don't know. It's like, here I sit, having experienced a myriad of life's nuances in a very compressed period of time and I'm awash in feelings. I feel cleansed. Maybe this is what it feels like to not feel stress. Maybe this is what it feels like to be high.
I brought exactly the right amount of coffee. Used the last of it this morning and am still sipping on it.
Post-race elation. 50 mile races are fantastic. They hurt like hell and require a lot of mental fortitude to finish. And then I sit down and smile.
Time to go to the airport.
In seat 8F on United flight 1099 from San Jose, Costa Rica to Houston, Texas. I was chosen for a random security check and they wanded me and searched my bags and boots. I think they said the flight is full but right now there are 4 empty seats between me and the girl in the seat on the other window. They are closing the doors now so I guess I got lucky. I'm actually a pretty lucky guy.