Last Thursday we continued our trip around Costa Rica during Tropical Storm Alma. This is not our first adventure traveling in rough weather. The most memorable trip was in 1998. We left Portland, Oregon that fall, headed for the warmth of the Caribbean as we did every year at that time of year.
Our flight had gone well, although the weather was a bit rainy when we arrived in Dallas, Texas. From there we boarded an American Airlines flight listed as non-stop from Dallas to San José, Costa Rica.
The flight was bumpy and we really didn’t think much about it, but about an hour into it the flight attendant asked us to please fasten our safety belts as we would soon be landing in Guatemala City. She said there was quite a bit of rain and the landing might be a bit bumpy.
The last pass the flight attendants made down the aisles was more attentive to seat belts and trash than I’d ever experienced before. They clung to the seats backs to keep their balance as they struggled down the aisle and actually lifted blankets from people’s laps to check if the seat belt was buckled. Sheets of rain pummeled the sides of the airplane.
As we approached the airport in Guatemala City, the rain was so heavy it looked like thousands of bullets streaking past the windows. Out both sides of the plane I could see city buildings as we hurtled toward our fate. The plane bucked wildly as the pilot tried to put the plane down. It was too rough. He pulled up at the last moment just before the wheels touched and we lifted back into the sky, banking off and to the right.
The pilot came on the intercom and mumbled something in Spanish, which I could not understand. It sounded as though he was speaking into flannel blanket. I was white-knuckling my way through the experience while Alan sat peacefully by my side reading his book.
A Costa Rican sitting across the aisle finally translated the pilot’s comments for me.
With a reassuring grin, he said, “He says he is going to try to land again.”
The pilot continued to bank and buck until we were in position to make another attempt at landing. This time it was worse than the first. The same buildings flew past at supersonic speed, the rain streaked past, and we pulled up at the last minute again making the now familiar banking turn. Again, the muffled voice of the pilot.
“He’s going to try agian and if he can’t land then we’ll go on to San Salvador,” my personal translator informed me.
“Let’s just do that now,” I said
It took a total of three times before the pilot finally got the plane down onto the tarmac and we skidded and bumped up to the terminal. My armpits were soaked and fingers numb from clutching the seat arms. All I could think about was the take off, which, as it turned out, was much easier than the landing.
We arrived safely enough in Costa Rica later that night.
Over the next few days we discovered, from the papers and the TV news, we had just flown through Hurricane Mitch, a hurricane so violent it is remembered everywhere in Latin America as a benchmark for major disaster and loss of life.
So, Tropical Storm Alma, last Thursday, wasn’t too bad as we motored on toward the northern part of the country. Alan read today that it had sustained winds of 55 MPH, so it wasn’t really a cyclone.
The day’s travel took us up to the Nicaraguan border and through some beautiful cattle country with enormous pastures where white Brahman cattle grazed under Guanacaste trees, the national tree of Costa Rica.
From one of Costa Rica’s northern most towns, La Cruz, we took a secondary gravel road that was like driving down a riverbed. It took us through backcountry blanketed in citrus orchards and working subsistence farms. The road was rough and we could see where torrents of water had washed out the ditch banks along the way, but it was clear, and we made it to Upala in about three hours.
We arrived around five in the afternoon.
Upala may be beautiful but it is not an epicurean’s destination vacation spot. We wandered around the zocolo, or Central Square, where we were the focal point of the entire town. I don’t think they’d seen any tourists there in some time. After a five-minute tour of the town we made for a hotel.
Lonely Planet recommended Cabinas Maleku, “The best place in town. Big, high-ceilinged rooms with colorful cartoon murals have folksy furniture, including cute Sarchi-styled rocking chairs in front of the rooms.”
Tour books are a bit like reading descriptions of real estate, I think. The words “cute” and “folksy” being the dead giveaways, here. Our room did have high ceilings, but it resembled more chicken coop in the pitch than the vaulted ceiling image the tour book brings to mind.
The cartoon mural of two horses was indeed there, hanging on a vast wall of institutional green in the only location where we could not see it, over our heads. Lying down on the bed we were able to stare straight up at the only light in the room, a 60-watt incandescent light bulb that created a hippy strobe effect when the fan below it was turned on.
There was one small table in the room, a rickety wooden affair with half the drawer bottom missing. The tour book also promised cable TV, hot water, and AC. Yup, they were there. Alan referred to the TV as The Highboy situated, as it was, about 6′ 4″ off the floor on a swivel platform so we could direct it at the opposing wall like a search light. I know it was that far off the ground, because Alan is 6′ 3″ and he could barely clear the thing on a pass by to the bathroom.
In the bathroom there was a cold-water sink, a functional toilet (if you jiggled the flush handle so the chain didn’t hang up in the outlet), and a shower, complete with the infamous Latin American suicide showerhead. This gizmo is essentially a ring of heating elements encased in an oversized round plastic showerhead, directly wired to 120V and the plumbing. There is a little on/off switch on the plastic housing of the showerhead, and another to adjust the temperature. Yahoo, cowgirl up!. Even though I would have used it, it was broken and we took cold showers the following morning.
Once settled in our cozy, cute cabina we set out to look for food.
Lonely Planet, again: “Right off the main plaza and far more atmospheric is this romantic restaurant with red tablecloths, mood lighting, and a nice bar. The specialty is steak, and chances are it was born, raised, and slaughtered right here in Upala.”
It took us awhile to find Rancho Don Horacio. Once there we entered a dungeon-like Quonset hut so dark I almost tripped over a break in the cement floor at the entrance. The tablecloths were there and they were red… sort of. In fact, I think they were the same red– now maroon– tablecloths mentioned in the Lonely Planet printed in 2006. There were no diners, only a few drunks dimly outlined at the bar at the far end of the place.
Once our eyes adjusted to the movie-house darkness, Alan suggested a table next to one of the two windows in the joint.
“Nice view,” he remarked pleasantly, after we were seated. I looked out through the bars and noted the cement block building across a narrow alleyway full of weeds.
“Definitely better than the other one,” Alan said. That one had a block building about two feet from the window. I was admiring the ceiling that someone had meticulously formed into an arcing chessboard of red and darker red squares above our heads when the waitress/bartender arrived with menus. We ordered a couple of Bavarias to give ourselves room to discuss our options.
My mother, who traveled the world in her day, had a hard and fast rule when eating out: If one person has a gut feeling about the place and decides to leave, the other will not argue but simply get up and leave. There is time to talk about it later.
We drank our beers and decided that the homegrown and slaughtered beef should remain at Rancho Don Horacio’s. We found a cheap but good plate of food close to the market and settled into our room for the evening. We carry our own reading light, so life was good.. or better.
The next morning the sun was shining, the storm having moved north to Nicaragua and Honduras. A few miles out of town we got a beautiful view of Volcan Arenal. It is rarely seen without a shawl of clouds around its shoulders, so this was a treat.