It’s a Jungle Out There


By Liz Tosoni

Golfito Costa Rica

It’s a jungle out there. Yes, Feel Free and crew have arrived in lush, luxuriant, Costa Rica. We are anchored in Golfito (“little gulf”) at the southern end of the country, nestled securely, enveloped by steep, thickly forested hills that spill to the water’s edge, but for a narrow road fringing the shoreline.

Dotting that shoreline are colourful houses, restaurants and small marinas in tones of lemon yellow, pale peach, rust orange, mint green, eggshell white, blanched and weathered by the rays of the ever present tropical sunshine.

It’s a place of much activity with of local fish boats and fancy sports fishers alike, coming and going, the constant hum of cicadas buzzing, birds flying overhead, looping and diving.

Once ashore and hiking in the forest, it felt as though we’d been transported to the Garden of Eden.

Impossibly beautiful, exquisite flowers burst forth, seemingly everywhere.

Birds, large and diminutive, in flashes of bright color, chatted and darted, as if playing hide and seek. Monkeys also played games to avoid being seen, squabbling and communicating noisily, squealing and screeching.

The town of Golfito has her share of stories to tell, having been set up in 1938 by United Brands as a major banana port. Schools were built and doctors and police recruited, bringing prosperity and affluence to the area. The Company pulled out suddenly however, in 1985 because of “muchas problemas” to do with labor unions, social unrest and fluctuating banana prices. Then followed more problems in the form of rampant unemployment, alcoholism, prostitution, abandoned children and unruliness.

It was not so long ago known as one of the most unsavoury places in Costa Rica but today, it’s safe, clean, very friendly, and best of all for us, has a very secure anchorage. On a coast where many of the anchorages are open roadsteads, one that is protected from all directions is very much welcomed.

The distance from our anchorage in Panama, Las Brisas de Amador, to Golfito Costa Rica is 350 nautical miles. We did it comfortably in 12 days, making seven stops along the way including four islands, Otoque, Cebaco, Cavada and Partida, and three stops on the mainland side, Benao, Bahia Honda and Pavones .

We oozed along in variable winds, sometimes sailing, sometimes motoring. Occasionally the current was with us, occasionally against. Seas were gentle, skies blue, benign puffy clouds or wispy ones sometimes showing up as decorations, in quirky patterns like a painting by Escher. Nights were mostly calm, mornings generally brought easterlies, afternoons, westerlies.

Arriving in Pavones, our last stop before Golfito, was a bit hair raising. The day started at 0400 when we upped anchor, continuing on at a lazy pace with the usual easy conditions all the day long. We had reached Golfo Dulce (“sweet gulf”), and were about an hour away from dropping the hook at 2100 in the pitch black with only a finger nail moon, when winds picked up substantially and seas became choppy, really choppy, and then, a rain squall. Bad timing! Feel Free became a bucking bronco at the end of her long day. Tom steered us to what seemed to be a good spot in 30 feet on a falling tide while I dashed below in search of my seldom used foul weather jacket, then raced forward to wrestle with the anchor at the pitching bow, and finally dropped 150 feet of chain, then Tom put it in reverse to set it, under a curtain of rain. Aside from that little drama, sailing from Panama to Costa Rica was pretty peaceful.

With few boats making this run up the coast or down for that matter, it was a rather solitary existence with very little human contact. There was a cruising boat Libertad, at Benao, waiting for favourable conditions for their trip around Punta Mala and on to Panama. We chatted with them for a couple of hours. Then there was Domingo, an amiable, talkative (a mile a minute in Spanish) elderly gentleman who came by Feel Free in Bahia Honda, with bananas, lemons and coconuts for sale. The beach at Isla Partida was overflowing with guests from a small cruise ship, enjoying a shore lunch, so we had brief chats with a few of them as well.

Aside from those few human encounters though, Tom and I were on our own. Except for the dolphins, that is. We have entered the realm of the dolphins! I declared one day after yet another school swam alongside for a visit.

Feel Free was a dolphin magnet! They arrived sometimes in pairs, sometimes in small groups and sometimes in pods, dozens at a time, jumping out of the water like acrobats, cavorting, appearing to have a gay old time. We know that dolphins have to come to the surface to breathe but often, they seem to take advantage of the moment to leap high and clear, then plunge back into the water in perfect form, like they’re practising for the Olympics, or maybe just showing off for us?

They also appeared to get a great kick out of riding our bow waves. We’d see them off in the distance heading one way, then suddenly they’d change direction in unison, as if released by a latch, "they’re at the gates, they’re off"; then they’d gravitate, straight for the bow of Feel Free, engulfing us like a mob of zealous disciples, remaining, surfing, sometimes for a good half hour before resuming course, getting tired of the game.

That dark night, while heading into Pavones, just before the rain squall, we enjoyed a dolphin show of a different variety again. There was much phosphorescence or bioluminescence surrounding the boat as it moved through the water, at the bow and amidships, ribbons of sparkling light cascading in streams as ripples were made. It’s a dazzling sight to behold, and I am always thrilled when it happens but that night, some dolphins got in on the action. As they made their way toward the boat, their forms became lit up like giant Christmas tree lights. Once alongside, our dolphin friends swam as usual, taking occasional breaths, but this time they were luminous, their bodies glowing, sleek, moving light bulbs. It lasted only a short while but it was mesmerizing, magical. The wonders of nature never cease, so many hidden surprises.

Here’s a reflection of me in the water, taking a picture of Flipper (Flipper’s grandchild?). Which one is right side up? Tom and I were very confused when we first saw it, so I rotated it 180 degrees. Doesn’t Flipper appear to be returning my look, smirking, as if he knows me, saying ”Hey, long time no see. How’s it going guys?”