Sunday, February 17, 2008

The fine art of poor planning

On December 27th, I flew down to San Jose, Costa Rica, to start my winter break three-week-just-for-fun-birding-herping trip a few days ahead of the arrival of my friends. The first entry in my trip notebook, written on December 29th, reads:

First few days have been a bloody fucking disaster. I think I am lucky to be sitting here in Alajuela at the Hotel with all my possessions and my body reasonably intact

I have a penchant for overstatement, but for all that went wrong before I met up with my friends I do still consider myself lucky. Here was my plan: camp at the Quebrada Gonzalez station of Braulio Carrillo National Park for four nights, then return to San Jose to pick up my friends then continue on to Corcovado National Park and the rest of our trip. What actually happened: several attempted thefts, twisting my ankle, only being allowed to camp for one night, and being soaked and shivering in the rain at the top of a volcano while begging for change.

December 27th, 2007

Getting to Costa Rica involved about 18 hours straight of travel. The day after Christmas, I left home and took a bus across the state from Buffalo to New York City. From there I hopped the train over to JFK and flew nonstop to Juan Santamaria International Airport in San Jose (the nonstop flight is only five hours!) overnight. The flight was very smooth, allowing me to sleep the best I could (flying stresses me out). It was cloudy the whole way, so I couldn't enjoy any scenery or get any bearings until we had already descended into the Central Valley. The landing was so smooth and I was so absorbed with my first views of the country that I almost didn't notice the landing.

I took an airport taxi to downtown San Jose for about $20. I shortly realized that was a stupid move as the bus costs $0.75. I had three goals: find some topo maps from the Instituto Geografico Nacional, find some groceries for four nights of camping, then get on a bus to Braulio Carrillo as fast as possible. I gave the taxi driver the directions I had to the Instituto and we spent 30 minutes wandering around the city streets looking for it. Calling in for directions twice was no help, so I finally gave up and had the driver drop me in the plaza area near Mercado Central.

Wandering into the Mercado Central with all my gear was the first big mistake of the trip. I later noticed in my Lonely Planet guide that the Mercado is "the number one place in San Jose to get robbed". I missed that the first time around. I criss-crossed the market area several times looking for a grocery store. The actual Mercado encompasses most of a city block, and is a large, bustling indoor area with many vendor stalls selling meats, cheeses, leather, and other supplies. The gloomy Mercado is set in an area of about 6 or 8 city blocks worth of plaza and shops. I wandered the whole area with my extremely heavy hiking pack along with my daypack slung across my front. I'm sure I looked ridiculous and overly touristy, which is the exact image to avoid downtown.

It wasn't long before I was hit. My pack, an external frame model, has a few external pouchs attached that make easy targets for the hit-and-run thieves of the market area. I first noticed a thievery attempt as a slight tug. I looked back over my shoulder, and a dirty, ragged-beard man turned half away with a sideways glare. On one hand I didn't think I'd be aggressively mugged due to the near-constant walking police presence in the crowded market area. I think this drives the thieves to hit-and-run snatches: they just grab something fast and disappear into the crowd. On the other hand, I have what Amy describes as people-phobia. I was already worked up over being cast into crowded downtown with no direction, realizing a thief may have just hit me pushed me closer to a panic state. A quick check though revealed that nothing was amiss. Maybe he just bumped me, so I zipped things up tighter and carried on.

I kept wandering around and found a panaderia (bakery). At about this time I was accosted by the first beggar. He was really nice and spoke excellent English. He told some story of being from California and getting mugged and losing his ID, so I caved in and bought him a donut as I bought some loaves of bread and donuts for myself. With my people-phobia and near complete lack of city experience, even a friendly, positive, clean beggar was a little unsettling.

Finally, after wandering this downtown area (and getting friendly advice from a passerby: 'this isn't a good area') I found a small grocery store. This type of store involves a counter where you can view all the shelves, and you order what you want with the clerk at the counter. I used my mangled spanish and a lot of pointing to end with jelly, tuna, Zucaritas (Frosted Flakes), and some cookies. Not really enough for four days, but I had had about enough of the city. I'd find a way to deal with lack of food later.

I walked out of the grocery store and around the corner, heading south to where I'd seen a bus stop with "Braulio Carrillo" on it. I knew I needed to take a bus to Guapiles and just flag a stop as we passed the park (a major highway to the Atlantic coast bisects the park; the main ranger stations are located here). I wasn't sure what a stop labeled Braulio Carrillo would get me but it was a start for investigation.

I never really finished those thoughts because the ragged beard man grabbed one of my side pouches and started ripping it open from behind. I whirled around to face him and he backed away into the crowd with a scowl, as a second thief grabbed at my pockets from behind (what had just been front). I whirled back around, he melted away into the crowd, and a third thief grabbed again from behind. This time I violently spun around, using the momentum of my pack to throw the guy at the wall. He didn't like this, scowled and muttered foul things, and disappeared into the crowd. I could see the bearded guy still lurking nearby, though. 30 seconds out of the store and I was ambushed! They must have seen me go in and simply waited. I panicked and moved as fast as I could without running down the street, keeping as much of a 360 degree watch as I could. I didn't even stop to zip my pockets back up until I was a block away. While I was booking towards the bus stop, I added injury to insult by tripping in one of the deep holes lining the sides of San Jose downtown streets, lightly twisting my ankle.

By the time I hobbled to the bus stop, I must have looked really panicked and disheveled because I get more than the normal number of odd looks. I shed my pack, now keeping even more of an eagle eye on my surroundings and the people in them. At least here I was next to a clean, safe-looking park/plaza and across the street from a decent bus terminal. I went through my external pockets and found, remarkeably, that the thieves hadn't gotten away with anything. The most they would have gotten, though, was bug spray, toothpaste, and a first aid kit. If they had grabbed at the other pocket, they would have had all my spare camera batteries and memory cards rendering my camera useless for the rest of the trip. Whew.

I took a few minutes to catch my breath. I watched the pace of people and traffic around the city streets. I tried to get a look at the birds in the trees in the park behind me, but there was no way in hell I was showing my binoculars. I did see my first trip bird: a Rock Pigeon, woo-hoo! When I got my wits about me, I fitted the pack on again and crossed the street to the bus terminal. It turned out that this was the terminal to the Airport and to Alajuela (the one I could take for $0.75 instead of $20). I never did find out what the "Braulio Carrillo" stop was, because asking around found me a taxi across downtown to the Terminal Caribe and buses to Guapiles.

By now I was so anti-city and anti-people paranoid that I was ready to jog out of the city if I had to. Luckily there are regular buses to Guapiles for just a couple bucks, and I was quickly on my way, out of the city, to the first real birding of the trip.


  1. Now that man, that is a story. Glad you came out of it.

  2. O My! Is this how your trip started? Ugg, it had to get better at some point! Please tell me it gets better?

  3. Not the way you want to start off your trip to Costa Rica to be sure! I hope all went better after that point.

  4. That is a kick-ass beginning: I'm hooked, looking forward to your next installment. Looking forward to more encounters with Costa Rican wildlife and less with thieves, and especially glad they got your bug spray rather than your camera necessities.

  5. It does get better, although I haven't yet hit the lowest point of the trip....
    Mike - the thieves actually didn't get away with anything! I was amazed. I guess I reacted to quickly. Paranoia pays.

  6. believe it or not, I remember the California beggar from each of the last couple trips that I took through San Jose on the main pedestrian thoroughfare! Either that or it's such a compelling story that other beggars have picked it up as well...

  7. Canagica - that's really funny! Was he kind of a short guy?