On holiday with an estate agent? Waldemar Januszczak can think of no better companion to help negotiate the wilds of Costa Rica. After all, ‘Propo-Tourism’ is the next big thing
Packing for the perfect holiday was easy when I was younger. You took your suntan oils, your trunks, your aspirins. And there you were. But these days, the demands of the perfect older holiday require a much larger wash bag for the different grades of Nurofen to go into. Then there are the inflatable aeroplane pillows to squeeze in. The phone recharging equipment, with the spare batteries.
And, bulkiest of all, the travelling library of property brochures. It’s not as if you can leave them behind, can you? Any more than you can leave behind the range of large-format topographical survey maps that situate your prospective properties in the wider geographic scheme of things.
I think I discovered the pleasures and advantages of Propo-Tourism a few years before most Propo-Tourists. A couple of decades ago, after years of visiting the obvious places in France, I chanced upon a home-made advert on a notice board at the Chelsea Arts Club about a house that a member was selling in an area of France called Languedoc. I knew nothing about this southerly backwater. Looked it up on the map. Saw it was near the Med. Saw that the house was going for £10,000. Saw it looked great. And decided to fly to Montpellier for a week or so with my girl and have a peep.
The house turned out to be too large and too isolated. It had a trout stream burbling through the middle of it — I didn’t fish — and too many ruined barns to do up. But having traipsed out there and enjoyed the heat, the smell of wild thyme and all that, we decided the next day to see if the local estate agent had anything closer to a village. The guy put us in his car and for three days we toured upper and lower Languedoc on a fascinating voyage of rural discovery.
At that time, Languedoc didn’t have a beaten track. So you couldn’t say we went off it. But we went places nobody ever goes, we heard things nobody ever hears and we learnt more than we would ever have learnt on our own. He did all the driving. And we went home with a new house. The perfect holiday.
Since those long-ago days, I don’t think I have ever visited anywhere, in any circumstances, without pausing at least once before an estate agent’s window, or its equivalent, for a quick sense of the prices. It’s such an infallible way of getting to the pace of a place. Sometimes I take it much further. So many estate agents have boated me around Venice, for instance, that I reckon I now know the Serenissima’s darkest alleys better than the little red dwarf in Don’t Look Now.
My list of favourite Venetian restaurants, given to me by an early agent, is still reliable today: estate agents know these things. And what smart drivers they tend to be, familiar with all the short cuts; so thrillingly and enticingly free. The only thing you need absolutely to remember at the end of the tour is not to buy a house, because you’ll soon have too many of them.
Thus, as an old hand at Propo-Tourism, I plunged into our Costa Rican land- buying adventure holiday filled only with confidence. We’d been there a couple of times before, and a few minutes into the first visit, at the sight of the first imposs-ibly orange flame tree by the side of the road, she had said “We should think about a house here”, as she usually does. And I had said “Yes, we should”, as I usually do.
Costa Rica has lots of things about it that bring on those dreamy house-buying highs. It’s safe. It’s sun-filled. You get two fab oceans for the price of one, the Caribbean on one coast and the Pacific on the other. But what does it for me, what makes me tingle all over at the prospect of the place, can be conveyed in a single statistic: there are more species of butterfly in Costa Rica than in the whole of Africa. Nature adores this tiny country, and has been uncommonly generous to it. A place the size of Scotland boasts a bird list longer than Europe’s.
Because it’s only Scotland-sized, Costa Rica ought to be easy to get around. But it isn’t. Yes, there are plenty of roads and a surprising array of airports. But these airports are too grassy and home-made to leave the sick bag empty; while the roads have too many holes in them to be nego- tiated with a standard set of road skills.
Luckily, a Propo-Tourist visit not only allows you to tour the country for free in someone else’s car, it serves as an extremely handy advanced driving lesson for Costa Rican conditions. For instance, a few days into our trip, we came across a river that had flooded to bonnet height. To my eyes, Noah himself wouldn’t have gone in there. But the estate agent, who does this trip every day, not only negotiated the flood effortlessly, but passed on all his handy river-crossing tips while he was doing it. So, when it happened to us later — over and over again, as it happens — we knew precisely where to point.
The internet has become an invaluable resource for the Propo-Tourist. Costa Rica boasts as many property sites as it has species of butterfly, and stage one of planning the trip was to decide which of the ridiculously beautiful palm-fringed beach properties that cascaded off the downloads appeared to back onto the best hinterland. We decided to focus on the two peninsulas that droop like floppy willies off Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. The one to the north is called the Nicoya Peninsula. Drive it to the end and you are in Nicaragua. It’s bigger, more developed, drier. The southern willy is the Osa Peninsula: smaller, wetter, wilder. Going south from here, you soon arrive in Panama. Thus, a crude summation of Costa Rican opportunities seemed to be possible if we first went up, then down.
The fun way to reach the Nicoya Peninsula is to take the Pan-American Highway northwards out of San José, Costa Rica’s capital, then catch a ferry at Puntarenas. The peninsula has a gulf between it and the mainland in which the Pacific calms down and forms a gor- geous watery mirror, studded with islands. The pelicans like it, and the flying fish. This is where the ferry crosses. It takes an hour or so. But ahead of you when you dock is an unpaved drive of many bumpy hours if you’re heading north, as we intended to do, towards Nosara, where the best pictures on the property sites tended to direct you. So, instead, of taking the ferry, we drove over a new bridge that’s been built across the River Tempisque at the north of the gorgeous gulf.
A German tour guide was eaten here by a crocodile recently when he tried to push a boat off a mud flat. His tour party had to row back on their own. They’d paid for an adventure holiday, and boy did they get one.
David, our first estate agent, fills us in on the gory details soon after he picks us up at the hotel and we strike out into the beachside jungles north of Nosara in David’s indestructible Toyota. The Costa Rican real-estate salesman is a chatty and likeable breed.
They’re here because they don’t want to be somewhere else, somewhere easier, so these are smart people with their senses on red alert, guys who know how to survive and tell the tale. David recognises all the trees. He knows all the animals. He knows all the geo-graphy. He’s American, but this Americanism is something he is turning his back on. Everybody knows him. Every village we drive through, he gets waved at and honked at. He’s a character, the local estate agent, as specific a member of the community as the doctor or the priest. Being in his car is a whole lot of fun.
A scary drive up a muddy hill — did I tell you it was the middle of the rainy season? — ends with David steering the Toyota into a clump of jungle and somehow emerging on the other side at the summit of a hill. Back in England, on the computer, this was described as 100 untouched acres of Junquillal mountainside, with lovely sea views. There were photos and everything. But the photos didn’t do the vistas any justice at all. These aren’t sea views. These are painted horizons for a Hollywood epic. To own all this would make you an emperor, wouldn’t it? Monkeys rustle up in the trees. A toucan flaps by.
A few dozen butterfly species come to investigate. It’s stupendous. But it’s not close enough to the beach. So, what’s the next place? David has 10 acres that lead down to the sea, but there are no roads yet within the property, so are we prepared to walk? Of course we are prepared to walk. Had we been going around a national park, this would be called “a guided tour” and would be costing us $30 a head. It takes an hour to get to the beach. We force our way over a ridge thick with pochote trees, a sort of tree-sized bramble that is abundant here, and learn to identify the two types of land crab that keep sticking their heads out of the holes under your feet. The orange and purple ones are a hoot.
Patrolling the waves at washing-line height is the lonely pelican who lives here. The sea has chucked generous hunks of hardwood onto the sand for sitting on and watching him. Has anyone been here before? It doesn’t feel as if they have. It’s utterly gorgeous. But not being a wizard yet at crossing flooded rivers, and having so many of them between here and the airport, I don’t have the guts to go this wild. That’s another thing about Propo- Tourism: it tests your mettle in subtler ways than the conventional adventure holiday.
So, back to Nosara we skid and slide, keen to revisit the pleasures of infrastructure. Pretty much everything we see over the next few days is ridiculously tempting. Small wonder that so many retired Americans have chosen to end their days within walking distance of Nosara beach, where Al-Qaeda has no cells and where all the gardens are extra-large. On this fine stretch of the Nicoya Peninsula, nature has done an excellent deal with the real-estate business. Put something in the ground on Monday and by Friday it’s a fully fruiting mango. I suppose there are lots of people living here, but you can’t really see them through the trees.
But, of course, you come to Costa Rica to get away from Americans, not to settle among them, so I had no regrets about setting off on the modest-looking drive down to the underpopulated southern willy. It was about 150 miles. That’s all. But what with all the constant slaloming to avoid the holes, we must have covered twice that distance; and it took two terrifying, action-packed, nerve-tingling days. At one point, we found ourselves at the back of a small traffic jam and, jumping out to see why, we witnessed a sloth crossing the road. It took him 20 minutes.
Because all the waters were up, the various types of river crossing were invariably interesting. As darkness fell on the second day, my headlights picked out what seemed to be a yawning chasm in the middle of a bridge. Getting out to inspect, we discovered a yawning chasm in the middle of the bridge, with two girders going across it. The trick was to get your wheels onto these girders and drive forwards, perfectly straight. The chap behind us knew another way across.
He put his foot down and leapt the divide. Why pay for white-knuckle rides on kayaks when you can go property-hunting? We arrived in the middle of the night, shaking with fear and pessimism. The rain was power-showering down. The end of the world was nigh. But within a few moments of the sun coming up the next morning, it had all dried out, as it does in the tropics. And to wake us up we had the loudest and brightest alarm clock in paradise: a flock of screeching scarlet macaws passing overhead. They are common on the Osa Peninsula. In Puerto Jimenez, they come into town to feed on the almond trees in the town square.
The Golfo Dulce — the sweet gulf — sheltering within the droop of the Osa, is another magically flat expanse of water. It reminded me, of all places, of the lagoon in Venice, which I know well. It has that same bigness of vista to it. Though Venice, I agree, doesn’t have the dolphins. We’d arranged to be picked up at the dock at Jimenez and boated across to the other side, where a range of gulf-side plantations were on offer. The boat was all ours, except for the captain and the estate agent. These two turned out to be a couple from Frisco who had arrived on a sailing adventure 20 years ago and never worked up the momentum to leave. They did a bit of this and a bit of that, acquired a superb fund of tropical tales to tell, and eventually blundered into the real- estate business. It was like being shown around Key Largo by Bogart and Bacall.
The first property consisted of 1,000 acres of rainforest — a small country, basically — a tiny bit of which had been cleared to create a huge lawn on the gulf with a fabulous tropical lodge at its centre, made of hardwoods. They had a table in there, cut out of a single maho-gany trunk, that could seat 30 people easily. It was the largest and most awesomely beautiful piece of wood I have ever seen.
Humphrey and Lauren knew everything about tropical hardwoods, and now I know a lot too. One of the reasons I had on my back burner for coming over was to explore the possibilities of swapping a useless British pension for a useful Costa Rican teak plantation. But having been through Humphrey and Lauren’s teak course for beginners, I now know this to be an avenue dotted with ambushes. Bark thicknesses, the plank/price ratio, average yearly rainfall — the enemies are everywhere.
Having been fully persuaded of the dangers of exploiting teak, we embarked instead on an exploration of the best beaches by visiting the most picturesque beachside properties on offer. The Osa Peninsula is 10 years behind Nicoya in its development, which makes it ravishing, frankly. It is the site of Costa Rica’s greatest concentration of national parks, and pretty much anything that crawls, flits, swoops or lollops through Central America can be found here. Puerto Jimenez, the peninsula ‘s capital, was until very recently an illegal gold town, set up by prospectors needing supplies to explore the untouched jungle interiors.
Visiting Jimenez is a driving adventure all on its own. You can lose your car down a canyon on the main street.
Our property tour took us all the way down the peninsula’s southern coast and, having had the best driving instruction that the local real-estate experts had to offer, I was now able to negotiate the 12 overflowing rivers that stood between us and the Corcovado National Park nervelessly. There was no property for sale at Corcovado. It was just somewhere I had long wanted to visit.
The park has the greatest concentration of wildlife in Costa Rica, and since Costa Rica is said to have the greatest concentration of wildlife in the Americas, this really is a gold-miner’s desti- nation. As you near the park, you can sense nature picking up in intensity. Monkeys watch you from the side of the road. Coatis amble out into a hitchhiker’s position. At a hotel we stopped at, we watched the hotel cat being eaten by a boa. Most people fly into Corcovado, apparently, but I mightily enjoyed the skiddy four-wheel foreplay of driving here.
You cannot actually drive into the park itself. So we had to park the car outside a pul-peria, leave behind a handful of dollars for its preservation, put our luggage on a horse cart and walk along the beach for an hour or so before we reached the Corcovado Tent Lodge Camp. Since this is a bit of Costa Rica that sticks right out into the Pacific, the coast here is given a right pounding. It’s a gloriously primeval spot, with huge seas, where the beaches feel properly elemental and the commonest seaside bird is the angrily screeching macaw.
I had not slept in a tent since I was a boy scout, so the advances that have been made since then in tent architecture surprised and delighted me. At Corcovado you are basically housed in a room with cloth walls. For eating, there is a communal table that everyone converges upon at the sounding of the conch. The camp has showers and an adaptable bar where the barman doubles as the lodge’s frog expert. Shining a torch into the dripping jungle that surrounds the booze platform at night, he effortlessly identifies the wicked collection of curious eyes turned towards us boozers. You can go on nocturnal snake hunts as well, to search for the famously deadly fer-de-lance, which is common in Corcovado. But I gave that a pass.
During the day, various treks are offered into the jungle, though I suspect the chances of actually seeing a tapir or a jaguar are as slim as a hummingbird’s beak. You catch so many other things, however. Tons of hummingbirds, naturally. All four species of Costa Rican monkey. Another sloth, curled up in a tree like a clump of leaves. Another boa, adopting the same disguise. But what I’ll remember most vividly is the jungle orchestra at night. What a symphony blasts through the thin cloth walls of the tent. Pound, pound, pound goes the ocean. Drone, drone, drone go the bugs. And God only knows what that is out there squeaking and squealing the soprano parts. Having profited from so much free enjoyment on this excellent Propo-Tour, here I was, a proper tourist at last, paying to be kept awake.