Jan of the jungle

A Chico artist discovers the joys of traveling alone in Costa Rica

UNITED BY ART <br>The author and a beadwork artisan from the San Blas Islands share a moment in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

The author and a beadwork artisan from the San Blas Islands share a moment in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

Photo courtesy of Jan Allenspach

The vision is etched into my memory forever: the crystalline turquoise ocean, the deserted beach in Punta Uvita, Costa Rica, with Judy by my side, laughing. Suddenly, two large manta rays appeared in front of us, surfing the waves. Judy, unused to sea life, hurried out, but I stayed, unafraid and exhilarated, and was rewarded by seeing the huge creatures swimming away playfully at the last moment.

I was back, reveling in all life had to offer!

Just two days before, I had been lost. At home in Chico, the winter doldrums had hit me hard.

A few months earlier, my 50th birthday had arrived—on Sept. 11, 2001, as it happened. Like smoke and dust from the World Trade Towers, a pall settled over that day and the weeks that followed. Then, over the Christmas holidays, I came down with a terrible case of the flu.

All of this was compounding the general misery I felt following the ending of a years-long and deeply meaningful love relationship.

I needed to do something dramatic, something extraordinary, to revive my life.

I had heard praises about Costa Rica—about how beautiful the country was and how friendly its people—and the airfare was reasonable, so I booked a flight to San José. I was a newly single woman artist from Chico who knew no Spanish and had no clue where to go, and I was in search of warmth, revitalization and adventure.

San José was grim—smoggy, dirty and vaguely threatening. My sparse hotel room felt like a prison. I was beat. Too tired to find a new hotel and unable to sleep, I got up to explore and encountered an open-air market. Nearby an election rally, with its colorful banners, was being held. Finally, I found a large quiet park, where I sat down and drew, which relaxed me immediately.

“Buddha in Costa Rica,” a painting by the author incorporating imagery she encountered during her trip through Costa Rica.

Photo by Jan Allenspach

I soon discovered that, just because you are traveling alone, you don’t have to stay that way. That evening, at a restaurant, I sat near two American women, whose names were Judy and Mary. We started chatting, liked each other and agreed to meet the next day. We became companions, catching a bus to traverse the Cerro de la Muerte, or Mountain of Death, to Punta Uvita.

Located there is Ballena Marine Park, which houses sea turtles, whales, manta rays and sea snakes near a gorgeous beach where the rainforest drops directly down to its deserted sands. Snorkeling, I saw a Ridley turtle and a manta ray floating through the water and had a tiny luminous fish cavorting in front of my mask my entire dive. I began to feel whole again.

We stayed in a hotel in palm-covered huts and became members of the family composed of the owners and the diverse group of travelers staying there. After eight days together, we hated to say goodbye and were given gifts by the family when we left. This warmth and welcoming nature are predominant in Costa Rica. The people are happy to share their beautiful country with others who appreciate its loveliness.

A BRIDGE TO THE 21ST CENTURY? <br>Near Bribri, a village famous for its arts and crafts, a boy crosses a jungle stream on his way to school.

Photo by Jan Allenspach

Approximately 35 percent of Costa Rica has been dedicated to national parks, the literacy rate is well over 90 percent, and recycling is practiced religiously. Fifty years ago, Costa Rica, long one of the most stable democracies in the Western Hemisphere, decided to become “the Switzerland of Central America,” disbanding its army and investing instead in education, parks and other amenities. The people are friendly and welcoming, the buses cheap and the food basic. It is hot, dusty, dirty and “backwards,” and I loved it all.

From Punta Uvita, we journeyed to the Osa Peninsula and Corcovado National Park, famous for its isolation and animal life. Staying in an ecolodge tent with the ocean as my front yard and the rainforest at my back, spending nights in blackness (no electricity here), I listened to so many strange sounds my mind reeled.

Hiking in the park one night with locals, seeing animals I’d never even heard of, was almost as thrilling as hiking the next day and seeing a jaguar. Scarlet macaws flew overhead daily, and in the rainforest were howler, spider and capuchin monkeys. Huge morpho butterflies, with a wingspan of a foot across and iridescent, bright-blue wings, appeared daily.

This was a truly magical spot—and very peaceful due to its isolation. I hated to leave but had more to experience, so after five days we moved on.

To save time, I decided to cross Panama to get to the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. Panama is trashy and colorful and has better roads than Costa Rica due to the decades-long American military presence on the canal. On the dusty eight-hour bus ride across the country, I was amazed when, at a bus stop, the driver’s assistant climbed up on the roof and removed some dogs being kept there in gunny sacks stashed under large pots. Using a rope, he lowered them to their owners, some indigenous women dressed in brightly appliquéd dresses. The dogs were pets, I was assured.

Later, we stopped by the roadside, where the assistant lowered large quantities of building supplies—bags of cement, 25 sheets of corrugated tin roofing, a window and some two-by-fours—to a woman wearing a white polyester pantsuit and her husband. We were incredulous and delighted watching the action.

Having parted with Judy, traveling now with some Canadians, I spent a few days on Isla Bastimento, an island near Bocas del Toro. One day we rented a dugout canoe and, with a local guide, went snorkeling at a nearby island, Coral Cay, where we saw a huge barracuda, pipe coral, and numerous colorful fish.

TRES AMIGAS (left to right) The author with friends met on the journey—Judy from Chicago and Irene from Switzerland— enjoy the beauty and serenity of the Osa Peninsula on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.

Photo courtesy of Jan Allenspach

For lunch, our guide took us by canoe to another island, where a lady in hair curlers made us delicious fish dinners. Seemingly we were her only customers all day, since the island was deserted; the only other people we saw were four schoolgirls, who sold us johnnycakes (corn biscuits). Dolphins cavorted in the waves as we returned, sunburned and satisfied.

Traveling by water ferry the next day was exciting because we ran out of gas about 10 minutes from our destination. At first the incident was charming, and we chuckled as the captain started rowing our large boat full of people with a puny oar. But we had a bus to catch to get to Costa Rica, and started to become worried when another ferry came by but, instead of bringing us gas, went on to the dock, unloaded its people, and then came back empty. Right there, in the middle of the ocean, we all transferred from one boat to the other, including our luggage.

Finally arriving in Punta Uva on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, I became a solo traveler again. Several Chico friends own land here, so I wanted to see what had charmed them. It didn’t take me long to figure it out. Another rainforest park, where you could actually hike into Panama if you wished, was at the far end of town, and the ocean was famous for snorkeling. However, storm surf was up, so I never saw much of anything in the water.

No problem, as the hiking was fantastic. Howler monkeys called to each other from the trees around my hotel room, parrots flew by in large flocks and sloths hung in the trees. And did I mention the flowers? Birds of Paradise, hummingbird-visited heliconias, gardenias, ginger and other exotics graced the area.

Passion for this radiant country is contagious. The Costa Rican people are loving and kind, joyful from the beauty that surrounds them, and a visitor can’t help feeling the same way. The people I met, the beauty I saw, and the physicality of my trip and pushing myself to my personal limit all brought me back to center, revitalized. Just as important, the brilliantly colored birds and plants and animals I saw and the beautiful beaches became sources of new imagery for my paintings. Travel will do that, especially when you are "alone."