Our 17-day Panama Canal cruise on Celebrity Infinity made a port stop at Puntarenas, Costa Rica. Costa Rica lies in Central America between Nicaragua and Panama. The rather long cruise ship dock at Puntarenas crosses a long beach with dark volcanic sand extending in both directions as far as you can see. Waves crash in high breakers just offshore with a wicked surf that looks like there must be a drop-off there. Internet is available in the building at the end of the pier and also across the street in a little internet café. The café charged $3 per hour. I’m not sure what the other building charges, but the signal had a passcode so not it’s not free.
Locals in many small booths next to the pier sold all sorts of crafts, clothing, and jewelry, most of it locally made. Wood carving seemed big in the area as many people had wooden bowls and figurines for sale. One booth even had wooden plaques with the Celebrity Infinity painted on them, obviously made specially for the day’s cruise ship passengers.
The street running along the beach had shops and restaurants, though passengers were forewarned to be careful of what they might eat or drink on shore as people have been known to get sick if they aren’t careful.
We booked a train, boat, and bus shore excursion on the ship for a chance to see more of the area. We started out leaving port on the bus. A guide kept up a narrative most of the way with all sorts of interesting information. The bus traveled down a road along the shore on its way from Puntarenas to Caldera. Old overgrown railroad tracks paralleled the road. A row of homes and other buildings sat across the tracks next to the beach. The homes and businesses have bars over the windows and around their patios. Every now and then a break between buildings revealed a park, but more often the open space held crumbling remains of a former building.
The guide said transitional forests surround Puntarenas as the climate shifts from the drier north to the wetter south. In the rainy season everything is green, but during the dry season the greenery of the mangroves near the sea provides food, shelter, and hiding places for the area’s creatures. Even fish hide in the roots of these trees which have adapted to growing in salt water and filter the salt out through their leaves. The forests are home to many birds including scarlet macaws and animals including 3
species of monkeys (spider, white face and howler). Crocodiles inhabit some of the rivers.
The effects of global warming have reached Puntarenas with rain that used to fall softly now falling harder, though drought is also a concern as the usually rainy hills had the least rain of any year out of the previous 114 years in their rainy season of September and October in 2015. Mountains and volcanoes bring about a number of microclimates as the clouds dump their rain on the way up leaving much less moisture for the other side.
As the bus crossed over a bridge on the Tarcoles River on the way to the boat ride we could see quite a few crocs on the shore. People used to feed the crocs and they had crocodile man shows where a man would feed them live chickens, but feeding them is no longer allowed.
The bus arrived at our first destination on the river and parked next to a tree. Everyone got off and headed down to one of the many boats along the shore. Our busload of people boarded our assigned craft. We meandered down the river with several other boats. One boat held the other half of our excursion group who came on another bus.
The other boats were separate tours. When one boat spotted a crocodile more boats came in to see it as well. The crocs appeared quite used to this and would hang around for awhile not frightened away at all. One couple on the other boat seemed to have incredible luck. They had won their tickets for the excursion and a crocodile popped up right next to their seats on the boat.
From the boat we also saw lots of egrets, some herons, swallows, and cows. The cows of course are not wild. Sadly we also saw lots of garbage both in the plants at the side of the river and floating around in the river itself. One bend in the river had two small islands of garbage, one of which had several birds sitting on it. An open air building near the river had a snack of fresh fruit waiting for us when we got off the boats. They also had a gift shop there.
After the boat ride we boarded the bus for our trip to the train and learned more about Costa Rica along the way. Spanish is the official language, but most Costa Ricans speak English as well. The mostly catholic population of about 4 ½ million is 95% literate and everyone in this socialist country has health care. Unemployment is about 10-11%. The people tend to be friendly to tourists, as tourism is a large part of their economy.
About 30 years ago Costa Rica passed legislation giving women equality and now they require a percentage of their politicians to be women. About 25% of the country’s land is national parks to preserve the area’s flora and fauna. The main exports of the country are bananas, coffee and pineapples, though it used to be microchips before the factory closed down and the work went to Asia. Call centers employ many people, mainly college students. Though their only oil refinery has not worked in 10 years the government still keeps people employed there according to our tour guide who had no idea what the workers actually do.
The bus stopped to let everyone out near an old-fashioned train with a wooden interior. The train ride ran 17 km through an area where real Costa Ricans live, not where tourists stay. Along the tracks we pretty much saw homes from all walks of life. One had green meadows full of horses. The guide said the guy who lived there was so rich he claimed he owned the nearby town rather than being from it.
We passed through woods with monkeys in the trees, past pastureland with houses here and there, and through several towns. Some of the houses looked quite nice. A few even had pools. Others appeared a bit more rundown and often had animal pens bordering the house. Some looked like squatter shacks, pieced together with whatever materials the occupant could find to build them with. Outhouses, often without doors, accompanied the houses through one of the poorer looking stretches where the occupants apparently did not have indoor plumbing.
The guide warned people not to hang out the windows as some areas had trees, rock walls, or tunnels coming nearly up to the train where anyone hanging out too far could lose body parts. One town had what looked like a cattle loader so close it nearly touched the train in the middle of an otherwise open stretch that could easily have caught someone off guard and probably taken off any hands or heads that hit it going past so it is a good thing nobody had them hanging out.
This excursion was a good way to see parts of Costa Rica that we would never have seen staying strictly in the tourist areas.