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It was during our housesit in the Netherlands that we made Zancudo, Costa Rica our next destination. We made the decision before we considered how we would get there…before we learned just how off-the-beaten-path Zancudo, Costa Rica is. Thankfully, we had some guidance on getting to Zancudo, but our trip wasn’t without a few gasps and flubs.
From the Netherlands, we traveled from Amsterdam to Iceland (and enjoyed a chilly stopover). We continued on from Iceland to Dulles International Airport outside Washington D.C. (where a friend housed and entertained us for a couple of days). We left D.C. from Reagan International and flew to Miami for a quick overnight. The following day, we boarded a plane to San Jose, Costa Rica. That was the easy part.
Before we left Miami, we had received an email from Sansa Air, the Costa Rican airline we were using to fly from San Jose to Golfito , the closest airport to Zancudo. We were informed that rather than flying direct to Golfito, we would first be making a stop across the Golfo Dulce in Puerto Jimenez. The quick stop on the Osa Peninsula delayed our arrival time to Golfito by 45 minutes. While normally this small time adjustment would be insignificant, that wasn’t the case in our situation.
Getting to Zancudo from Golfito is best done by boat. Although only six miles apart geographically, there is no route that is actually that short. The drive by car takes an hour and a half and taxis are extremely expensive. A boat had been scheduled to pick us up from the Goflito pier at 5:00pm to take us to Zancudo. With the 45 minute flight delay, however, it meant it would be close to sunset and boats don’t make the trip from Golfito to Zancudo in darkness. Our later arrival meant that we would be staying in Golfito for the night. We would be so close to Zancudo, yet so far away.
Through a series of emails, phone calls, Spanglish and the help from a few people we would soon call friends, we got a room booked at the Golfito Hotel, right next to the pier. The following day, instead of taking a private boat, we would simply hop on the daily 1:00pm taxi boat from Golfito to Zancudo. We are accustomed to operating in a world of last-minute decisions, so we weren’t too fazed by the changes to our itinerary. Still, we were anxious about getting to Zancudo and slightly disappointed that our original plan wouldn’t work out.
When we arrived at the San Jose Juan Santamaria International Airport, we encountered long lines at immigration that exceeded the zig-zagging queue and slipped down the hallway. The line moved at a snail’s pace. What seemed would take forever, however, only took about an hour, which wasn’t an issue as we had more than an hour to spare before our connecting flight.
Once getting new stamps in our passports, our first order of business was to withdraw cash in the local currency from an ATM, as there are no ATMs in Zancudo. Simple enough. Our second mission was to find the gate for Sansa Air. Not as simple as one might think.
We followed the signs through the concourse that led us out the front doors of the airport where we were met by a crowd of eager taxi cab drivers. “How did we miss it?” I thought. After a series of No Thank Yous and No Graciases, a guy asked where we were going. We told him Sansa. “Come follow me, I’ll show you.” I’m always leery of these situations. Follow you where? To your car? What will you try to sell us? For how much? As much kindness as we’ve been shown around the world, I still have trouble accepting that some people are just being nice. And, shame on me, because this guy (like so many others before him) was just being nice.
We followed him to the main street and turned left down a sidewalk to a chain-link fenced area. At the gate, he pointed through in the direction of the open-air Sansa ticket counter. We had to weigh and check our bags. Then, the Sansa employee looked at me and said, “OK, step on the scale.” I started laughing; surely he was joking. He wasn’t. My weight had to be calculated for the flight. I shot a look at Kris. What kind of plane were we flying on?
We were handed a laminated boarding card and sent around the corner to security. A bored-looking girl slowly got up from her chair and waved a wand around each of us. We then emptied our carry on bags onto the counter and she waved the wand over the contents. Satisfied, she sent us on our way down the hallway to the gate. The waiting room had just a few rows of chairs, maps on the wall, as well as a payphone, and a small convenience store that sold beer, chips and ice cream. At least there was free wifi. I peeked out the open doors to the planes that were sitting outside. They weren’t much bigger than model airplanes.
While we waited for our plane, other passengers trickled into the room, flights arrived and took off, the sound of the engines filling the small space. Shortly before our departure, the man who had checked us in came into the room looking for us. “One of your bags has to stay,” he said. “Too heavy. They bring it to you on the first flight tomorrow.” Neither of our bags weigh that much and, again, I
wondered worried just how small the plane was.
He handed us a form to fill out. I only knew the name of the hotel; I didn’t have an address or phone number – and the hotel didn’t have a website where I could look up the information. When I handed the partially-completed form back, he just smiled and said, “It’s OK. They know where it is.” I was apprehensive and completely full of doubt, but what choice did we have except to trust him? It was a lot easier for me, since it was Kris’s bag that was being left behind, not mine.
When it was time to board the flight, the same man, now armed with his trusty clipboard, came through the door and with a slightly raised voice said, “Puerto Jimenez, Golfito!” We, along with 5 other passengers, handed back our laminated boarding cards and walked onto the tarmac toward the tiny plane with a single propeller. Kris was as giddy as a kid getting to ride on a firetruck. I was less enthusiastic.
Hunched over (because you can’t stand upright in a plane that small), we made our way to the two front seats, directly behind the two pilots. There were 10 seats on the Cessna 208 single-engine turboprop. I peered over the pilot’s chair for an up-close look at flight instruments. (Remember way back when kids were allowed to go into the cockpit and talk to the pilots and they would give you a plastic wings pin? This was nothing like that.) It was a pretty busy dashboard for such a little plane.
We taxied and took off. Kris was grinning ear-to-ear. I was clutching his arm, but I was also wide-eyed out the window, watching as the city of San Jose disappeared and we rose over mountains and rivers. When we disappeared into the clouds, my attention swiftly turned back to the pilots, who both looked as relaxed as if they were on the beach on a sunny afternoon. The plane jumped. My eyes flashed at the instruments (as if I even had a clue!) and I gripped Kris’s arm even tighter. He just laughed at me. We finally emerged from the clouds and followed the coastline south. White-capped waves rolled in patterned lines across the ocean far below us. The swell must have been enormous.
We descended into Puerto Jimenez and I couldn’t hide my surprise at the simple landing strip. The section of pavement was fenced off, but directly on the other side of the fence were homes and a cemetery. Before we came to a complete stop, a dog trotted alongside the plane before quickly losing interest. A few passengers disembarked, leaving just three of us and the two pilots on the plane. Then we were in the air again, crossing over the bay to Golfito.
We flew right into a storm, huge drops of rain pelted the windshield. We were jostled about in the turbulence, but again, I was the only one concerned. Golfito came into sight, the airport nestled in between mountains that were covered in forest. I was taken by the landscape and ecstatic that we were landing.
On somewhat shaky legs, I exited the aircraft. The one-man ground crew casually told Kris he would bring his bag to the hotel in the morning and we hopped into a cab for a $6 ride into town. The girl at the hotel didn’t speak any English, but we eventually managed to communicate that we had a reservation. Our room was small with only a partition separating the bathroom from the main room. There was a TV and an air conditioner – an absolute luxury – and our towels had been twisted into the shape of swans on the bed. There was only one knob for water in the shower, but with the heavy, humid air, we had no interest in hot water anyway.
Right on cue, the sun was setting. We didn’t want to stray too far from the hotel in the dark, but we wanted to take advantage of our unexpected layover and get a look at Golfito, which is the closest city to Zancudo. We wandered up the street, watching our step on the cracked sidewalks, to an open-air bar, Latitude 8. The crowd was made up of expats and a resident dog. We ordered beers, which were ice cold and served with homemade, knitted cozies and a napkin wrapped around the top. For dinner, we had chicken burritos at the recommended spot, Buenos Dias. The air conditioner inside the restaurant was the size of a spaceship and condensation dripped down the front windows.
We woke early the next day, sunlight filtering through the sheer curtains by 5:30am. It was already warm outside. I made a trip to the grocery store while Kris waited for his bag. A pickup truck was parked in front of the hotel selling fruit and vegetables out of the flatbed. Lawn chairs were set up on the sidewalk, but no one sat in the them yet. A stand along the sidewalk sold newspapers, coffee and candy. At the store, I bought a couple of baked goods and scanned the products on the shelves. Any brands I recognized were twice the cost of the local counterpart. The selection was limited, but I was relieved to see that anything I anticipated us needing was available at this store.
Kris was getting nervous about his bag. It was the first time in nearly two years of travel that one of our bags hadn’t traveled with us…and there was definitely some separation anxiety. He had checked at the front desk, but it hadn’t yet arrived. We looked at the carbon copy of the form we had filled out, scanning it for a number to call. Just then, there was a knock at the door. It was the one-man ground crew, delivering the backpack. Ye of little faith.
The night before, we had arranged to meet with a woman – an expat of 35 years – whose local knowledge far exceeded anything we could have read about the place. She showed us around town, taking us to the post office, the ATM, and other stores. Most importantly, she gave us a rundown on how things work in the region. We liked her immediately.
At 12:30pm, we made our way down to the pier to find the boat going to Zancudo. There was only one other boat – which was going to Puerto Jimenez – so it wasn’t too difficult to find. Right on time, we left Golfito and headed south to Zancudo. We cut in at the river, taking the scenic shortcut through the mangroves. At low tide, the riverbed is too shallow and the boat has to stay in the bay. We kept our eyes peeled for crocodiles lurking below the surface, but spotted none. Within a half hour of leaving the pier, we finally arrived in Zancudo.
The process of getting to Zancudo was our first glimpse into life in an off-the-beaten-path locale. We’ve quickly learned that things don’t always work to plan, but, in time, they almost always work out. And, while getting to Zancudo may not have been as simple as we had anticipated, getting to the beach from our front door is. It’s right across the street.
We want to know: Do you have a story about getting to Zancudo, Costa Rica? Have you experienced traveling to a place that wasn’t as simple as you anticipated it being? Tell us your story in the comments!