Arriving in Cahuita can be a bit unnerving. The bus stops for as long as it takes for passengers, in this case, only my wife and I, to get off and collect their belongings. The driver doesn’t even turn off the engine…in fact, he doesn’t even get off the bus. The few locals loafing about the small commercial center stared at us with looks of surprise, suspicion, or pity. Their facial expressions were like poker players bluffing a bad hand. Unreadable. We hoisted our packs and made our way through the maze of unmarked dirt roads to the cluster of cabinas where I had made reservations, which were unnecessary, since we were the only guests for the three days we were there.
A man was slouching in the common area of the cabinas, an open-air palapa with a disorganized bar, a wall-mounted television tuned into a Spanish-language soap opera, and a few mismatched tables and chairs. Alejandro, as he introduced himself, was alone among his amenities. “Look around…pick the one you want,” he said in response to my inquiry about our room. He focused his attention back to the television set and the full glass of whiskey on the table. We went to look.
The keys to each room were dangling from the doorknobs. We chose one with a hammock on the small porch, stored our gear, and decided to explore the town and the well-known national park and turtle reserve only yards away.
“This can’t be your high season,” I said, my attempt at small talking Alejandro into some semblance of a conversation. His English was near perfect, and I felt he would be a good source of information concerning Cahuita. “High season?” Alejandro mumbled, swilling whiskey out of a glass and chasing that with a pull off a tall can of Pilsen beer. “What high season?” He never looked away from the soap opera on the television. A picture of depression. And, as we wandered out into the streets of the near-empty town, I could see why.
The few people that we passed on the way to the beach were silent…looking us over with suspicion. There were more monkeys in the trees above us than there were tourists in this tourist town, and the monkeys were silent…as if they were waiting for some inevitability that was about to befall us.
A young woman in a worn red dress came riding by on a battered red bike. Her posture was erect; her long, dirty blonde hair flowing in the sticky, humid air. She looked neither left nor right, but why would she? There was not a hint of traffic. We found two chairs outside a lonely restaurant across from the central park, or what passed as a central park. The norm for any Latin American town or city of any size is to be centered around a central park and soccer field, and they are usually kept up, even if there are no funds to care for anything else in town. The city park here was overgrown with grass and weeds, with several drunks hanging around a ramshackle bus shelter. The woman in red made a return pass by us, riding erect with her eyes closed, her greasy hair flowing behind her like a superhero’s cape. A pleasant young waitress brought us beers, offered us menus, and started rambling through an extraordinary list of specialties of the day. One of the drunks staggered into the middle of the street and yelled, “Igual…igual…igual…” a few times in a hoarse, slurred voice. Equal…equal…equal? Equal to what?
My wife is an avid Stephen King fan, and I asked her, “Is this perfect for a King book, or what? What if we tried to beat it out of here tomorrow, went to the bus station, and no bus showed up, ever? And every day we ask the zombie-eyed guy in the ticket window about the next bus, and he says, ‘manana…manana…’ and it just gets hotter, and more humid, and darker, and -”
“Stop, with that,” she said, wiping the sweat from her face. “Let’s go to the park. There’s got to be somebody at the beach.”
The small, wooden bridge that leads from Cahuita to the national park is not more than a ten minute walk from anywhere in town. Several young thug types were standing in a line before that bridge offering their array of services. “Jungle tour…cocaina…turtle tour…mota…diving tour…marihuana…” And then there was the beach.
We were baffled. Cahuita National Park is a tourist destination…a major draw…and here I was, the lone human subject for my wife to photograph. And, it’s not like this was cherry-picked for the Tropical-Caribbean-beach-all-to-yourself look. Up the beach…
…and, down the beach…
Not a soul to be seen…or a tourist, either. We walked a few meters back to a jungle path which arches its way parallel to the cove, populated with plenty of wildlife, flowers, and customarily, tourists. But…
…not a tourist in sight, one way or the other.
Now, this does have its advantages, and disadvantages. Being the only people on a tropical Caribbean beach is everyone’s dream come true. And, having the jungle to ourselves to wander and photograph flowers is one idea of Paradise to my wife. She busied herself taking pictures of monkeys, ring-tailed somethings, and these white orchids. They bloomed and died in one day. But, to feel as if we were protagonists in a Stephen King novel in progress…that’s unnverving.
If these are Ghost Orchids, my wife would love to know. She posted them on a blog site or her own, asking the same question, but got no response from flower people. So, are they Ghost Orchids? That’s her question…but, being a nosy and inquisitive writer always looking for connections, inter-connections and metaphors in every little thing, my questions were more like:
What happened to Cahuita, a Costa Rican tourist town with a beautiful Caribbean beach and national park famous for turtle watching types? Why did it dry up and wilt away like these beautiful white flowers? Could it be the U.S. Drug War being fought out on the seas and beaches, the highways and jungle trails, and in the banking systems of Central American nations such as Costa Rica which want nothing to do with Mexican or Columbian drug lords or the American lust for drugs?
We eventually did get out of Cahuita, and I got a few questions answered, along with a rumor, which is not uncommon here.
The spaced-out woman with the blonde cape of hair, endlessly riding her battered bike through the the near-deserted streets with no apparent place to go – she’s from a wealthy Austrian family. She visited Cahuita years ago, got tossed out after a couple of months, returned when her family began to trust her again, and has been repeating that cycle (possible pun…insert here) for years. This came from a German friend who suggested I go to Cahuita. He hadn’t been there for years, and was surprised to hear of my experiences there, and that the Austrian girl was still peddling about town. Hard to fathom, but so are a lot of things that go on here.
Another friend, a builder who has invested in land across Costa Rica, from Guanacaste, where we live, to the central highlands, and above Cahuita, didn’t react well to news of my experiences there.
He told me he had purchased ten lots out there several years before which he was just waiting to develop and sell. I told him he had waited too long.
He told me that the American D.E.A. had upped their presence in Costa Rica. I told him they were too late.
He told me that President Laura Chinchilla and the presidents of other Central American countries had tried to hold a conference to plan some different strategies for combatting the drug war, to be presented at the next Organization of American States gathering. I said that sounded like trouble, for them.
I did some data mining, and found that the conference was a bust, since half of the nations – El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua – had allegedly been visited by the ghost of El Gringo…and since these are the three Central American nations that have the most experience with being invaded by American force, and subverted by American influence, they knew enough to stay away when the staying away was good.
The end of a once prosperous tourist town…or a drug war burp soon to become another tourist boom? Quien saves?