Costa Rica is a wacky little country where everyone goes bananas—oops, grows bananas!
No, that's not quite it. How about this one? If Edna Ferber's novel Giant had been set in Costa Rica instead of in Texas, she would have titled it Dwarf.
Nope, not yet. One more try. Take a sportsman's vacation in this barmy Central American republic and watch the Costans grow Rica by the minute!
Well, three strikes are out in any league, but there is a certain amount of truth in all the above generalizations. During a recent two-week tour with rod and gun through the "sportsman's paradise" of Costa Rica, this American sportsman encountered plenty of bananas (both edible and laughable), bagged an abundance of fish and game (all of it dwarfed by comparison with the tourist brochure photographs) and probably paid off the Costa Rican national debt in the process. Nonetheless, it was a fortnight to remember—particularly the fourth night, when the iguana tried to eat the boat. But more about that later.
August 6, 1972
Five distinct Adventures took place during the two weeks in Costa Rica, and each must be treated separately so as to convey the proper balance of romance and danger.
Before launching into the particulars, it would be helpful to place Costa Rica in a geographical, historical and sociological context. This tropical, West Virginia-sized republic, sandwiched between Nicaragua on the north and Panama on the south, was discovered in 1502 by Columbus on his fourth voyage. The great discoverer was hoping to find gold and much to his disappointment found none. Indeed, there was no gold—the baubles worn by the coastal tribes had reached Costa Rica by trade with Mexico and Panama. This fact made it easier for the Conquistadores to rub out the Indians in good conscience.
The Ticos—as Costa Ricans are known from their habit of placing a Spanish diminutive ending on every other noun—are generally a happy, helpful lot. Though handmade oxcarts still do most of the hauling in the backcountry, one sees little of the grinding poverty evident elsewhere in Latin America. Outside of the major cities—San José, the capital, with a population of 612,000, Cartago (198,000), Puntarenas (210,000) and Liberia (189,000)—the 20th century atmosphere of neon and plastic rapidly gives way to the 19th, which is compounded of burnt gunpowder, cattle sweat and freshly chopped wood.
Not the least of the joys in traveling through rural Costa Rica is a sense of having been transported backward in time to pioneer America, with all its courage, self-reliance and cruelty. The machete replaces the ax, but it is just as sharp; the rifle may burn smokeless powder, but it is just as trusty—and rusty—as great granddad's Hawken. The psychic echoes vibrate at every bend: a troop of drovers cantering their ponies through the Brahma country, sitting on their mounts with the fluidity of men who spend 12 hours a day in the saddle; a dugout canoe racing the dusk down a jungle river, paddled by a drunken woman who is singing as she transports her snoring husband home from the trading post; a homesteader shucking the armor from an armadillo he has surprised and beheaded in his corn patch—meat for the pot. Ah, yes. The Ticos at work and the Ticos at play. Like their gringo cousins of a century ago, there is little to distinguish between the two conditions, as the following Adventures hope to disclose.
NIGHT OF THE IGUANA
"You don't know what lonesome is," said Dr. Ken Hayes, "until you try to declaw an ocelot." The good doctor was hunched hugely over a rum and water in the bar of the Hotel Cayuga, explaining his reasons for giving up a $150,000-a-year veterinary practice in Los Angeles in favor of life as an expatriate freebooter in Costa Rica. Outside, the night life of Puntarenas, Costa Rica's principal Pacific seaport, was switching on: ambitious shoeshine boys sizing up the passing footwear like so many Hispanic Horatio Algers; hardhanded commercial fishermen squinting the day's sunlight from their eyes; garrulous gaggles of Japanese merchant sailors waddling to the brothels. And coveys of tantalizing Ticas, minuscule and bursting with a pretty naiveté, were indulging themselves in the ancient Latin rite of the paseo—the evening parade of pulchritude.
"Nice-looking gals," allowed Hayes, "but my old lady is a Tica and I don't even dare to look—the word gets around fast." He grinned his Ward Bond grin, the scar on his right cheekbone winking like a long third eye, and continued with his lament. Prissy poodles, contemptuous Siamese cats, the sick undercurrent of anthropomorphism and covert bestiality—all had finally combined to drive him Puntarenasward. He had tried commercial fishing, and though there was adventure in it, there was little money and much too much work. "I fished tiger sharks for a while," he said. "The only bait they would take was chunks of rotten porpoise. We'd get the porpoises running up under the bows, you know the lovely way they do it, and harpoon them. We'd murder poor old Flipper a dozen times a week and cut him up for shark bait. Oh yes, the duality of Dr. Dolittle!"
Now Hayes runs the Jesucita Island Resort, a cozy, low-key and totally isolated establishment about an hour's run across the Gulf of Nicoya from Puntarenas. His pretty Tica girl friend, Cristina, a small staff of superlative cooks and bottle washers two rambunctious dogs, an alley cat as aloof as its Siamese cousins and a raucous green parrot make up the ménage, as we discovered the following morning when we repaired to Jesucita with Hayes. After a day of fishing off the Negritos Islands—sierra mackerel up to seven pounds and a shark that straightened a 10/0 hook—we set off at dawn for the Tempisque River, at the head of the gulf. Our vessel was Hayes' 32-foot diesel launch, Oceanea, a rackety stinkpot that would make The African Queen look like The Empress Theodora. Hayes had decked her out in red, white and blue, but the final touch was almost too much: eyelashes on the pilothouse windows and at the waterline a Cupid's bow mouth. "She only draws four feet," Hayes explained with the self-deprecating shrug of the ardent shipowner, "so we can get quite a way up the Tempisque—up to the howler monkeys and the parrots, where it all looks like right out of Bomba, The Jungle Boy. There's some big snook in the river, but we've never been able to get them to take. The tides are weird and the water's murky. Still, there's plenty of birdlife, and iguanas till hell won't have it. We'll zap an iguana for lunch. Last time I was up there, I killed three of them, each at least six feet long. They taste just like chicken."
Perking our way up the gulf, we passed a long, hilly island on which the signs of cultivation were tidily evident. "That's the San Lucas Golf and Country Club," explained Hayes. "Actually the local prison. Believe me, it ain't Attica by a long shot. The prisoners have the run of the island—they even have keys to their own cells, so their buddies can't steal from them when they're out. Their families can visit, in fact they can stay all the time if the prisoner can afford the rent, which is dirt cheap."
"How's a guy get in jail in this country?" asked Mel McNeal, one of Hayes' guests. McNeal, 36, is a strawberry farmer from Hamilton, Mont. who drifted down to Costa Rica on a whim when the snow began to fly in the Bitterroot Mountains. A husky, slow-spoken man with a ruddy mustache and a lip full of Copenhagen snuff, he was the perfect counterpoint to the Costa Rican wilds: a latter-day gringo frontiersman, he had hunted elk and fished cutthroat trout in the land of Bridger and Fitzpatrick. Casual and competent, he exemplified the best of the old America and much of its tragedy. His second wife had just left him. "Women just don't fit into the mountains," he said.
And the Oceanea, painted woman that she was, just barely fit into the Tempisque. Riding the flood tide up the river, the launch skittered over sandbars and past mangrove-legged islands bright with birds: curlews and flamingos, cranes and snipe, sandpipers, kingfishers, roseate spoonbills drifting like flying powder puffs across the late-afternoon skies. Herons young and old. And above them, the circling hawks, ospreys and vultures endemic to the Costa Rican skies. From time to time, glittering shoals of shrimp danced ahead of the bow wave, and butterflies with six-inch wingspans rode the thermals rising from the smokestack.
The overhanging boughs of the jungle trees carried plenty of snoozing iguanas, and as the sunlight turned yellow, then pale pink, we put out in a boat to shoot one. To Mel, the elk slayer, it looked just a touch too easy. But at his first shot with the .22 rifle, the iguana merely shrugged and ran off into the underbrush—probably to die. The second iguana was hit just behind the eye, but it fell into the river beside the boat and disappeared. The third iguana, which used all the protection of its snoozing branch to avoid the bullet, dropped into the boat, thrashing insanely with its brain blown out. A few slams with an empty Coke bottle subdued it. No real pride in zapping an iguana—rather, a great deal of shame in being so sloppy at the mort—but at least we had meat, and had taken it in the manner of the Ticos. Or so we thought.
About nine o'clock that night, with the moon just rising full over the chirp of tree toads and the slapping of snook on their feed in the river, we decided to dress out the iguana, which was still lying in the small boat. I jumped down into the boat and grabbed the iguana by its tail—and Katie bar the gate! The critter came flailing and snapping toward my arm, as alive as ever it was on a tree limb, livelier in fact, its spiny wattles shaking in the moonlight and its long, black claws searching for a purchase in my groin. As Little Orphan Annie says, "Leapin' lizards!" A machete solved the problem, and the iguana tasted just fine the following day—not like chicken, as Ken Hayes had advertised, but more like rabbit.
On the way back up the gulf that night, a pod of porpoises intercepted the Oceanea, darting up beneath her bow to take a ride on the wave. The water was phosphorescent, and the quick, agile shapes of the playing animals were greener than an ancient church steeple. "Damn if I haven't forgotten my harpoon," yelled Hayes, leaning out of the pilothouse. "But what the hell, I'm through with tiger sharks anyway." Sure, Ken—if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Parsing out his bill the following day, it seemed that—including the logistics—our six-foot iguana had cost $10.42 an inch. Good thing we weren't hunting alligators.
A HUNT WITH MAJOR MORAL
His full title was Major Eduardo Francisco José Rodrigo Jes√∫s Jaime Mora Alfaro, Director, Guardia Rural, and it was just about a quarter of an inch longer than he was tall. We called him Major Moral for short. A plumpish coxcomb of 39, the major is, by his own admission, one of Costa Rica's champion hunters. "Me campeón!" he would announce during lulls in the conversation, throwing out his chest and thumping it. "In 1965 campeón of jaguar for all of Costa Rica! In 1970, campeón of pig for the Atlantic Zone! Me campeón!" Thump!
We were camped in a cow pasture at the western end of Cabo Santa Elena near the Murciélago Islands—murciélago being Spanish for bat—up near the Nicaraguan border. It was a harsh and beautiful country, with barren hills thrusting up from the dense selva like the tonsured pates of buried monks. In addition to Major Moral, the party consisted of the major's brother, Elias, 34, a spry and wiry electrical engineer from San José; the major's driver, Carlos Delfin, 29, a lithe pistolero who affected a black and yellow, jaguar-patterned hunting shirt; and the Brothers Bonilla—Cury, 42, the world's wittiest, most bloodthirsty certified public accountant, and Sergio, 22, a second-year dental student and graduate sadist. Sergio was the most complex: fragile as an altar boy and possessed of a gloomy ecological concern for the future of his country's wildlife, he nonetheless was the most competitive and accomplished killer of the lot. No sooner had we arrived near the campsite than Sergio spotted a bronze-backed, spade-headed snake slithering into the brush. "Mocasín!" he exulted, whipping out his .22 automatic pistol and popping four shots at the moccasin. It escaped unhit. A few minutes later, over beer and sardines, he was lamenting that, "We Costa Ricans are killers, not conservationists."
The self-accusation was as accurate as Sergio's usually smack-on aim. Hunting for signs during the lemon-colored twilight, we found the scats and pad prints of deer and coyote, plus those of peculiarly Central and South American animals I had never before hunted, such as the splayed, three-toed prints of the tapir, which reaches 600 pounds, and the humanoid hand prints of the coatimundi, a long-snouted relative of the raccoon. Wearing head lamps like those used by coal miners and armed with pistols, Cury and Sergio prowled the jungle after dark, flashing the amber eyes of an animal they were sure was an ocelot. No shot. Then they turned their beams on the surf of the Bahía Santa Elena, near whose shores we were camped, and Cury cast a handline for sharks. The hook was baited with a chunk of mortadella left over from supper. The sharks seemed to savor the sausage with more gusto than the diners had, but Cury was unable to hook them up. The rustling of countless hermit crabs, some housed in conch shells the size of softballs, echoed his discontent.
By first light the following morning, we were hacking our way through the selva at the base of a bald-topped hill to take our stands for a deer drive. Major Moral's four rent-a-dogs—two beagles and a pair of liver-colored hounds—stood eagerly downwind of the guns, ready to course the hillside cover and push the deer into range. Or so claimed the major. Sergio took the toughest, most direct approach to the hilltop, but his machete machismo proved hapless. No sooner had he slashed his way through the morning-glory tangle guarding the hilltop than we saw two deer fade like smoke into the woods above. A bit more subtlety on the approach route might have bagged us a fair-sized buck. But the morning was not a total washout. Elias Mora knocked off a coatimundi with a full-choked pattern of buckshot, reducing it to tatters. The beads of blood on its thick, dark coat attracted dragonflies longer than darning needles and black bumblebees the size of sparrows. "Even the bugs of Costa Rica like meat," giggled Major Moral.
The afternoon was a pursuit race as we chased Sergio on a long, hot, unproductive hike through the hills. The scenery, however, was magnificent—a cross between Kenya and Wyoming, with a paranoid hint of Vietnam in the tall, slashing elephant grass. Banana-frond valleys rose to barren ridges. Clouds of gaudy mariposas—much lighter a word in Spanish than "butterflies"—gave way to breezy slopes where parrots flushed in stiff-winged indignation. We wound our way up a stream bed, pausing beside the few clear pools. The Ticos drank the water while the gringos wondered: "Agua pura, vita brevis?" Sergio hacked off a few lengths of a bejuco vine, and we drank the water that dripped from it. "Good for the kidneys," said our medical expert.
After dinner that evening, Sergio suggested a night hunt and a look at the sea turtles that lay their eggs this time of the year along the Playa Blanca, a five-mile, half-moon beach that flanked the Pacific just to the west of us. We stiffened our resolve with a few raw turtle eggs, which had been given to us. Peel the Ping-Pong ball shell off the egg, drop the glutinous green yolk in a glass with a dollop of ketchup, a dash of tabasco, a few grains of pepper and a squeeze of lime, then gulp it down without wincing. Nothing readies a man for a walk among the snakes of Costa Rica better than huevos de tortuga.
Within half an hour Sergio's head lamp had frozen the eyes of a deer grazing no more than 200 yards from the trail. Sergio switched off the light and we clambered through dense thornbush and over downed hardwoods to get closer. Click! On went the light. The eyes were still there. No way of telling if they belonged to a buck or a doe but, as Sergio liked to say, "Here we have no conservation, only killing." Sergio blazed away, the two flashes of his shots freezing the deer in its grotesque, final leap. The eyes thrashed out. I finished the deer, ambivalently, with another charge of buckshot. It proved to be a button buck weighing no more than 80 pounds, its antlers a scant three inches in length. Not a deer to be proud of, but then we were trying to do it Costa Rican fashion.
Lashing the buck to the roof rack to discourage hungry coyotes, we drove to the beach and proceeded afoot. A waning moon lit the whole scene with silver. The streams feeding into the ocean clattered with baitfish pursued by snapper and snook. After a mile or more of walking, we crossed the wide track of a sea turtle that had come in from the water and we followed it up to where she lay in her nest. The eggs were already dropping steadily. Her breathing was harsh against the whisper of the surf. Her back and head were crusted with sand, but the gelatinous tears that have moved men for centuries with images of forlorn motherhood flowed through the crust as steadily as the eggs themselves fell. When the last egg had fallen, the turtle covered her nest carefully and waddled off a few yards to scrape out a false nest as a distraction to the coyotes who were waiting in the bush, anticipating their own feast of huevos tie tortuga. Though we could not rightly blame them, we walked around the nest to spook them off with human scent, then escorted the lady back to the sea. She disappeared slowly, like a reef beneath a rising tide.
More deer and a raft of ducks fell to our guns in the succeeding two days. The duck hunt was memorable for one telling scene. We were shooting in a 200-acre swamp of water lilies, dragonflies, snakes and blue-wing teal, underlaid with the foulest-smelling, gooiest mud in Christendom. The Costa Ricans do not use skiffs or retrieving dogs in their duck hunting, so we all waded out into the marsh and started shooting to flight the ducks. Then, as they swung round and round above and behind us, we dropped them in the wildest antiaircraft barrage since the Battle of Iron Bottom Bay. It was lonely and tough, armpit deep in the warm, reeking water, taking the high doubles with one eye out for snakes. But Major Moral never lost his military bearing, never once broke step during the long marshy march. He is certainly the only man in Latin America who can strut convincingly while up to his sternum in snakes. How did he do it? "Me campeón" Major Moral announced that night, thumping his chest. "Campeón of ducks and other animals."
TROUT KINGS OF THE OROSI
Of all the outdoor sports, none is more peaceful, more contemplative or gentle than trout fishing—or so runs the tradition established by Dame Juliana Berners and Sir Izaak Walton. The gentle splashing of the stream over its mossy bed, the delicate rise of the aristocratic trout as it cannily judges the verisimilitude of the feathery offering, the angler calmly puffing on his briar as he subdues his noble prey, then compassionately releases it—these are the treacly clichés of the sport. Well, in Costa Rica they got plenty of trout, but nobody ever heard of Izaak Walton.
The Trout Adventure appeared at first glance to offer a quiet counterpoint to the blood-and-gunpowder vibes of the hunt with Major Moral. Instead, it proved far more dangerous and debilitating, and incalculably more productive. Costa Rica's trout, which are mainly rainbows planted back in the late 19th century, inhabit the craggy sluiceways of the 12,000-foot cordillera, swift and surly rivers that believe in running straight downhill. Just to get to the rivers from their steep, flanking ridges requires the balance and courage of the proverbial bighorn. Ah, but once you're down among them....
We rendezvoused an hour before dawn in an all-night coffeepot in central San José, just across from the plaza. The night people were still out in force—sneering spivs in diddybop hats and their Naugahyde girl friends, sucking down coffee and waiting for dawn to drive them back into their holes. Our merry band, by contrast, was all grins and camaraderie. We dubbed them "The Magnificent Seven." Their leader was Carlos (Keko) Rodríguez, 28, the manager of a local fishing tackle shop called GIL-CA. The second in command was a jovial, slab-cheeked ironworker, Vicente Sotela, whose nickname was Cochise. The others were Miguel Naranjo, a Bic pen salesman; Nando Gonàlez, an architectural draftsman; Paco Rojas, a dealer in Jeep parts; Alfredo Ruh, a chemistry student at C.R.U.; and John Hegji, a wandering construction worker from Chicago who spends his winters fishing the offbeat corners of Latin America. All but Hegji were members of Costa Rica's national fishing club, whose motto seems to be, "Kill everything in the river before your buddies get there."
Coffee consumed, we headed into the mountains. "These guys are something else," warned Hegji. "The first three times I fished with them, I got skunked while they came up with about 10 trout apiece. After the first time, with the climbing and scrambling over the rocks and all, I couldn't bend my legs the next day. I swore I'd never fish with them again, but here I am." A watery sunrise was just breaking through chilly rain when we reached the first fishing spot, and the roar of the Río Orosi some 500 feet below the oiled road sounded like a squadron of 747s. A cast-iron ladder helped us over the lip of the cliff and down the first 50 feet, but then it was every man for himself. While the gringos wore holes in the seats of their pants, Keko led his pals down the scree slopes with the agility of Giles Goat-Boy. Slick mud and loose volcanic rock made the going even slower. By the time the gringos reached the river, Keko already had four plump rainbows dangling from his belt stringer and was casting furiously with a bronze Mepps spinner for more. Cochise squatted like an Apache atop a mammoth boulder, a coffee can of night crawlers dangling from his neck as he drifted worms through the likelier pools. Zingo! A hookup, and his golden, snaggly grin illuminated the gloomy gorge like lightning.
Within 20 minutes, the Magnificent Seven had cleaned out half a mile of river, and would have gone upstream for more if the current had not proved unwadable. In these wasp-waisted narrows, the water was more powerful than a fire-hose blast. Back up the mountain scrambled the Seven, kicking, shoving and whooping with glee. Cochise brandished his string of trout as if they were fresh-cut scalps.
The next stop proved easier of access—it could be reached by wading down a feeder stream filled with driftwood tangles and slime-covered boulders—and thus more productive for the gringos. There it was found that the voracity of the Orosi's trout was in keeping with the strength of its water. Though the fish were not large—three pounds was the biggest taken—they were thick-bodied and agile, using the powerful current to help strip line off the drag in their long, leaping runs. Their appetites were insatiable, and for the purist who insists that a wild trout is selective in its choice of flies or streamers, we offer this inventory of one piscine stomach. When he opened his first trout, John Hegji found within it: four canned sardines, three slices of boiled potato, a garbanzo pea and two filter tips. All leftovers, no doubt, from the lunch of a farmer who had dumped his garbage upstream.
In two hours of fishing (part of which included the rock climb in and out), the Magnificent Seven killed 68 trout. Keko was high man with 21. On the way back down to San José, we stopped at an open-air resort called Los Patios to lunch on a few of them. While the trout were cooking, the Seven polished off three bottles of rum and a dozen plates of bocas, the tasty, hot hors d'oeuvres that are Costa Rica's answer to the free lunch of yesteryear. The trout were crisp and pink-fleshed, and between bites Keko amused the company with dialect impressions of Costa Rican presidents, past and present. When that began to pall, he climbed on the table and crowed like a rooster, cackling and scratching between cock-a-doodle-doos. Almost instantly, a pair of real roosters emerged from a nearby barnyard and began fighting in the road outside Los Patios. Chairs toppled and rum spilled as the Magnificent Seven dashed out to watch the battle, placing and laying off bets on the ultimate winner even as they ran. And so we leave them, Trout Kings of the Orosi, just a bunch of normal, healthy Ticos....
THE TARPON GAME AT PARISMINA
The best time to fish tarpon on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica is during the month of April—"the dry season," as Carlos Barrantes, the nation's ranking tarpon expert, calls it. Well, assume it is the height of the dry season at Barrantes' tarpon camp on the Parismina River. Lew Newberry, a 35-year-old sportsman out of Pound Ridge, N. Y. and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., stands wringing wet in a 12-foot skiff, plugging through the cloudbursts for tarpon. Now and then he foul-hooks a coconut tree or a drowned pig drifting past in the muddy flood. The skies to the east, where the weather is making, look dark as a squirt-gun barrel; the mountains to the west are only hearsay. Newberry grumbles between casts: "Whoever heard of paying $185 for an airline ticket and $60 a day for nothing more than a nonstop shower?" Then just as one squall squishes past and another loads its buckets, Newberry gets a solid hit—the tarpon's trademark, like hooking a bucket of cement as it falls from a 20-story building. Instant Dry Look!
The tarpon comes surging out of the water with the roar of a giant partridge, scales flashing and gill plates rattling. "Gotcha!" yells Lew with great faith in his 15-pound line as he socks the fish five, six times. A dozen jumps and half an hour later the fish is finished: a 65-pound "schoolie." "Let's release him," Newberry says as the fish rolls exhausted alongside.
"No, no," says Ferdinando Gonàlez Gonàlez, the guide. "We eat him." But the killing club is missing from the boat. Newberry lip-gaffs the fish and then coshes it with an empty bottle of Tropical beer, which bursts like a brown grenade on about the fifth swing. A second bottle finishes the job, and as it dies the tarpon pours gallons of milt into the river and the boat. Nando, the guide, studies the dead fish critically and discovers a minuscule rip in its abdomen. "This sàbado sick," he announces. "We no eat him." So the tarpon ends up on the riverbank, a Lucullan order of unmarinated herring for the jungle folk.
For five straight days the rain thrummed down and the tarpon rolled—hundreds, maybe thousands of them, surging and sucking air in the turbid waters of the Parismina and its clearer tributaries—but only rarely did they deign to hit. Like the rest of Costa Rica, however, the Parismina Tarpon Rancho is a multilevel experience. If the fishing was bad, the scene more than made up for it, what with the flat, triple-canopy rain forest full of surprises: sudden orchids, trees that looked like porcupines, snakes and alligators and butterflies bright as a mescaline trip. And there was always the small stuff, such as snook, machaca and guapote, the latter a colorful, flat-bodied relative of the South American peacock bass. Of course, the management told the usual "shoulda-been-here-last-week" tales to explain the tarpons' reluctance. "Last week one party boated 50 tarpon in five days," explained Bill Baxter, a nonfisherman from Oregon who runs the Rancho during its four-month (January to April) season.
The Rancho itself is a termite-gnawed dormitory painted the same shade of blue that the skies resolutely were not. It stands in a glossy field of tarpon scales just above the flood mark of the Parismina's mouth. The town surrounding the Rancho consists of tin-roofed houses, peopled by the local guides, their pretty and usually pregnant ladies, beautiful babies, combative chickens, well-fed cattle and horses, plus some of the world's largest insects. When a beetle the size of a tennis ball assaulted the screens one evening, Mrs. Baxter explained gaily: "They got a big stinger on their snoots and they don't get out of the way for no one. If six or seven of 'em hit ya, I'm told, it's Goodby Crool World!"
But perhaps the most interesting of Parismina's phenomena is Wilhelm Bauer, an ancient, half-blind and nearly deaf German who has survived on the Parismina's mucky strand far longer than the Tarpon Rancho. "I lost my left eye and I also lost most of my hearing to an artillery barrage in the 1914-18 war," he explained one day, in quite literate German, during a lull between rain barrels. "After that, I was an animal trapper—for the zoos—in the Sudan and the Congo. I went out to Bengal to trap but discovered there was better money in the opium business. That brought me to San Francisco, and from there I started running guns into Nicaragua, just for sport, mind you, not revolution. But the Somozas thought otherwise. I've been here in Costa Rica, on and off, for 36 years. I love the jungle, the animals and I love the fish. I kill the fish to stay alive, but I love them. The people are somewhat different."
Tears formed on his weathered cheek. "I'm 83 years old now and I cannot discern faces beyond two meters; I cannot hear very well. The people here, they play tricks on me. They wait until my back is turned and then they take my fish." He gestured toward his home, a thatch-roofed boathouse without siding where he lives with his canoe and, perhaps, a fading portrait of the Kaiser. "Last week they stole my teeth. My teeth! When I was young, I was capable of killing a man by poking my forefinger through his chest—here, like this!" He pokes; it hurts. A finger as strong as a railroad spike. He smiles, slyly, without a tooth in his head. His arms, extruded like anchor cables from his faded, sleeveless sweatshirt, are those of a 25-year-old carpenter.
On the last day at Parismina, the tarpon begin to cooperate. The rains have slackened in the mountains to the west. The river is clearing. Up at Pacuare, half an hour's run by motorboat, there are four fish on at the same time in as many boats. One of the fish belongs to Liz Rawlins, a fisherwoman of considerable charm but little experience, at least with tarpon. We conduct a running interview while she fights the fish.
"I'm 53 years old and I hate the PTA," she yells while the tarpon strips off line. "My husband, this bearded stud who's grinning at me here in the boat, is a rancher in Chico, Calif. He likes to fish but he doesn't like me to talk a lot. If you have a teen-aged daughter, look out—they get kind of freaky."
The tarpon sounds and begins dragging the boat up the lagoon toward Limon, 40 miles away. Has Mrs. Rawlins done much fishing?
"Cutthroat trout in the Yellowstone, coho salmon in British Columbia and the Queen Charlotte Islands," she shouts, struggling to tighten the drag. The tarpon suddenly rises—the line angling ominously upward—and leaps in a clatter of lips. "I might mention that I'm a Cheerio freak. My life was empty until I discovered Cheerios, with a little nonfat milk on them. Now I can't wait for it to be morning so I can have my Cheerios. I used to walk my husband out to the truck to say goodby in the morning, but now I hang back and have another bowl of Cheerios. It's almost ruined our marriage, but I think he understands."
He nods and smiles an affirmation through his beard.
What does Mrs. Rawlins plan to do with her tarpon, if and when she boats it?
"Right now I wish it would just go away, though I suppose it's trying to do just that. If I can, I'll release it. But I think the creep is hooked 'way down in the gullet. Thus we'll probably have to kill it, sad to say."
Which she does, after an hour and a half of ever-deepening silence on both her part and that of the fish. "I'm whipped," she says, finally, and at that very moment the tarpon rolls belly up. The fish, which will weigh in at 91 pounds on the Rancho's rusty scale, is draped over the bows—a silver badge of honor bright against the flaking green aluminum. The skies are darkening again, more rain in the offing.
On the ride back down from Pacuare, we see a dugout canoe struggling against the current. The paddler hangs close to the banks—within two meters—and his arms are as thick as a bejuco vine, but he is making at best a quarter of a knot. It is Wilhelm Bauer, but where is he going?
"To Limón," he says, his slow but steady stroke uninterrupted. "It will take me two days, but I must buy my new teeth." He giggles a bit madly and continues up the river.
DOWN THE SIERPE
The Sierpe River has its origins in a small, clear pond surrounded by bird-of-paradise thickets some 25 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Peering down into the water as you cast unproductively for snook, which roll occasionally like great wounded torpedoes in the dragonfly heat of the day, one can watch the dwarf life of Costa Rica at its best. Crayfish, insect larvae, wolfpacks of minnows no longer than a thumbnail savaging their way through the filmy fleets of plankton that make of the pond a rich soup caldron.
We were fishing the Sierpe from source to mouth as our last Adventure. Jerry Thornhill, a reformed Texan who runs the only well-equipped fishing camp on Costa Rica's Pacific side, was our guide—a freckled, large, literary-minded man of 48 who had split from Texas "as soon as I realized what it was all about," to duty in the submarine service during World War II, followed by jobs in Alaska, Wyoming and Utah that confirmed him in his reclusiveness. Costa Rica became an inevitability. Over the last decade, Thornhill built his Rancho Estero Azul near the mouth of the Sierpe. It stands as a modest monument to what can be done by a sensitive outdoorsman in a land where practically anything is possible. On the esthetic side, which in Costa Rica must include nature, Thornhill's camp is home to birds and beasts as well as good fishing and excellent cuisine. Howler monkeys bellow a wonderful, basso profundo counterpoint to his witticisms. Lizards rattle through the thatched roofs of the guest cottages, scoffing up those late, few mosquitoes that might have had feeding in mind. Praying mantises keep the other insects down, and over a breakfast as ample as any in Dallas, one can watch hummingbirds feasting on their equivalent of ham and eggs under the banana-frond eaves. "I used to think they were sipping dew from the roof," Thornhill said one morning. "But I looked closer and by damn they were eating bugs."
On the technical side, Thornhill provides all the transport—and expertise—the fisherman needs. Skiffs powered by 18-horse outboards for the river fishing, which includes snapper, snook, corvina and machaca in the estuary; roosterfish. sierra mackerel, jack crevalle, bonita and grouper in the clear waters just outside the Sierpe's mouth. For the offshore trade, a 35-foot sportfishing boat can reach marlin, sailfish, dolphin, wahoo, tuna and sharks in blue water no more than two hours from camp. And Thornhill sometimes knows where they are, which is the most that can be said for any fishing expert.
"Our most reliable fish are the pargo in the estuary and the gallo just offshore—the snapper and the roosterfish, respectively," Thornhill admits. "But we've taken some big sail on the outside near Isla de Ca√±as—boated one that weighed nearly 200 pounds just a few weeks ago. And the biggest snook ever caught came out of this river—a 69½-pounder." There is a snook decoy on the wall of Jerry's dining room that he claims is unique. "They use these things on the Atlantic side. They float it from a chain dangling from a tree branch and it holds right there in the current. Sometimes it draws other snook, big ones and little ones. Then they harpoon the big ones. I'm told they kill 'em up to 25 pounds over there with these decoys. I've never tried it here yet, but as far as I know they're the only fish decoys in the world."
Perhaps we should have given the decoy its first West Coast tryout that day in the Laguna Sierpe—nothing else worked. After two scorchingly fruitless hours on the laguna, we drifted down the river in search of machaca. The machaca is a Central American member of the Brycon genus; it resembles the shad. Trolling up the Chocuaco, one of the Sierpe's many narrow tributaries, our party hooked 10 of them, each one a leaping, hook-hating reprobate more active than the testiest tarpon. Red Henderson, a guest of Thornhill's from New Jersey, lost three lures to the machacas. Of the five he boated, he released two. "It's a funny thing that happens in your heart during a fight with a good fish," he said as we drifted further downstream. The jungle was thick on both sides now, and the Jesucristo lizards were leaping from the downed trees to run across the water with their strange, quick dance steps. "If the fish gets to you, you let him go. If he just dogs it, you let him go. But if he's really good, I mean if he really comes close to having you whipped, you always keep him. It doesn't make sense, but then neither does fishing, I guess."
Farther down the Sierpe, as the river widened, we passed villages where the children ran out to body-surf on the wakes of our outboard motors. Back in the mangrove swamps, Ticos in dugout canoes were stripping the blood-red bark to use as dye for their leatherwork. Here we tied into pargo, the deep-fighting snappers that can weigh in at 50 pounds, though the average is about seven. Thornhill hooked a 10-pounder that put on a demonstration of what current and courage can make of a fish. His light line was not enough to horse the fish away from the bottom, and the boat drifted downstream as the pargo dived for the sunken logs that spelled refuge. Only after a quarter hour of whooping and cursing, changing of position in the boats and high revs on the motor did we finally bring him to gaff.
Our solitary snook, an infantile two-pounder, was a lot more active on the surface—he jumped, he ran, he tried to dive under the boat in a manner creditable to his race—but only half as much fun. Land of the Dwarfs, sho nuff. "But imagine what a 50-pound snook would be like in these close waters," said Thornhill. Imagination is not enough.
Running from the estuary into the sea, through a roller-coaster surf that slammed the boats around as if they were birchbark canoes, we trolled our way up the Isla Violin. Fang-shaped islets wreathed with frigate birds surrounded the musical island. We took a few sierra and a jack crevalle, then headed down the coast for roosterfish. "That's Drake's Bay," said Thornhill, pointing out a white crescent fringed with coconut palms and studded with a few huts. "The old pirate used to lie up here, waiting to intercept the plate fleets coasting down from Mexico. It's all changed now. There's a kid named Jeff who lives just a way down the coast, a Vietnam veteran who is trying to develop a little finca there. He grows plàtanos, those plantains that were the ancestor of United Fruit's Chiquita. He wants to get the income of the farm up to $100 a month, but right now he's only reached $50.I don't think he'll make it. Lives there alone, with just his surfboard for company. He swims out and rides the surf whenever the plàtanos can take care of themselves. He's a longhaired kid, but I guess Drake had long hair too. I wonder what they'd talk about if they could get together?"
Then the roosters hit, thick and fast. Their long black combs flashed above the water as they struck, their black and green stripes vaulted through the sunlight as they jumped, then faded to truck-tire gray as they died in the stern sheets. We cast to them with light line and had more fun than could be enjoyed with anything short of dolphin or sailfish. The roosterfish is a remote member of the Carangidae, that family of fish that includes the jack crevalle and the permit, and is unique to the west coast of the Americas, from Mexico down to Peru. A big rooster will reach 100 pounds and more than five feet in length. They school up in the smaller sizes, which we were catching, and are a lot more acrobatic than the grown-ups.
Running back up the Sierpe that evening, the two boats deep with fish, it hardly seemed to matter that Costa Rica was the land of bananas and dwarfs, or that the Costans had grown a bit Rica with our patronage. The lemon light of sunset made the trees seem dense as coal. The surges offish on the flat water might well have been those giant snook we had missed in the bright light of midday. Swarms of gnats spattered against our faces, but there were the darting bats—good old murciélagos!—picking them off gracefully. A caiman slipped off the mudbank as we neared home, and where else can you see that?
We had grown Rica as well.