The next morning we awoke and retraced our steps back across the river, the boatmen ferrying us from the tranquility and solitude of Isla Damas and into the fray that is the town of Quepos as we journeyed toward Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio.
Manuel Antonio is the most visited park in Costa Rica, and one of the country’s crown jewels. No doubt it’s an ecological wonder and a blessing of protected lowland rainforest, but it’s also a jungle of tourism where trinket hawks and other vultures circle the ever present flow of wealth that pours in off the buses. That many fat wallets in one place seems to brings out the worst in a culture.
We saw wildlife, sure, but we also saw teenagers taking glamour shot selfies on crowded beaches and monkeys stealing food from coolers. This was the Costa Rica we had heard about and hoped to avoid. Luckily, Isla Damas awaited our return.
The next day we hired Jorge to boat us through the mangroves, an impenetrable wall of mud and roots and crocodile water that has thus far kept the evils of Quepos at bay. Gustavo, the family’s adopted son, was at the helm, and Jorge was the guide.
That day in the boat was many things: a Spanish lesson, a clinic on handlining for parrotfish from mangrove roots, a glimpse of an ecological paradise, but more than anything it was a history lesson. Jorge regaled us with stories of his childhood spearfishing in the mangroves among the crocodiles, of the storms that tore the island in half, and of the people that still lived in these beautiful back waters and how they survived.
We saw bats, sloths, and capuchins, and learned the ecology of an estuary from the eyes of an inhabitant. Most of us these days are residents of the places we live, but Jorge, he gets the high distinction of inhabitant. He feeds his family with fish from the river, he’s built houses from the mangrove timber, and now he’s a naturalist making a buck telling us the stories of a life lived on water.
That night we ate dinner on the patio, a plate of smoked sailfish and their famous mayonesas. We drank Flor de Cana and became brave and fast with our Spanish, and Jorge followed suit with a few words in English. Mire, his wife, and Gustavo did not partake in the rum and accordingly stuck to their native tongue. We brought beans, we did our own dishes, and there was no bill…it simply felt like friends having dinner.
That night the pack of dogs barked for hours, and the owners never hushed them. We were tourists, and this was tourism, but it was of a different kind.