A good guide can help a traveler interpret the local culture. But sometimes a guide can sanitize and filter your experience by telling and showing you only what they think you want to hear and see. Pabrö Sanchez, a guide I hired through the Florblanca Resort in Costa Rica to take me to the Curu Wildlife Refuge on the Nicoya Peninsula, is not such a person.
Before we’d even arrived at Curu, Pabrö, a 32-year-old anthropologist and archaeology student with roots in both Costa Rica and El Salvador, had given me an earful of his opinions. According to him, Costa Rica’s President, Laura Chinchilla, is the worst in the country’s history. And most of the businesses in town are owned by foreigners who hire other foreigners, most of whom have no legal right to work in the country.
I like a guide who isn’t full of shit, even if I don’t agree with all of their opinions, so I liked Pabrö immediately. But I realized that he was worth his weight in gold just a few minutes into our hike at Curu, a gorgeous, 175-acre, privately owned nature reserve near the Tambor airport, when we came upon a cluster of howler monkeys in a tree. They were unleashing their trademark deep, guttural howls and I asked him if he could imitate them.
“Of course I can,” he said, and proceeded to let out a series of calls that, if you closed your eyes, sounded almost the same as that of the monkeys (see video).
As we hiked through a dense, tropical forest on a bright sunny day, we had the place nearly to ourselves, and I couldn’t have been happier. Every time we passed a bird or another creature, Pabrö could immediately recognize it. Hoffmann woodpecker. Mangrove black hawk. White-tipped dove. Owl butterfly. Black headed trogon. White tail deer. Jesus Christ lizard. Coati. Mot mot. Great tailed crackle. He knew everything or at least sounded confident enough to fool me.
Pabrö also knew about all the soaring trees we were walking past but lost me trying to explain how his fellow native Meso American peoples had a deep connection to trees and nature.
“Trees are very interested in humans,” he said, before going on to explain that trees signified 13 realities, and one needed to go up a tree in order to experience them all.
“To access reality, you have to use a tree to get there,” he said, as I nodded thoughtfully, fascinated but unsure of exactly what he was talking about.
Pabrö talked a bit about native people in the area and mentioned that there is a tribe that lives near the Amistad National Park in Costa Rica that has no interaction with the outside world and is hostile toward visitors.
“Even I couldn’t go there,” he said. “I would not be welcomed.”
We crossed a rickety bridge over a mangrove swamp and caught a glimpse of Tortuga Island in the distance, as Pabrö plucked some leaves from a pochete tree and insisted that I eat them. They were tart, citrusy and oddly tasty. As we heard more howlers bellowing in the forest, Pabrö said that there were four types of monkeys in Costa Rica: howlers, white faced capuchins, titis (on the Carribean side) and spider monkeys.
“But the spider monkeys are nearly endangered,” he said. “People poach them because think they taste amazing and some farmers believe the monkeys come and steal children at night.”
After a long walk on a deserted beach, we retreated to the car and found Hilberth, our driver, slumbering in a reclined positioned in the car. He was a bit overweight and his tight pair of jeans, weren’t really appropriate for hiking in the heat.
“Come on man, you could use the exercise,” Pabrö teased, goading him into joining us.
The three of us set off towards a mangrove plantation and I asked Hilberth why he didn’t like hiking.
“He’s lazy and also he’s probably embarrassed to be seen walking around with a tourist,” Pabrö said in his typically blunt fashion, answering for him.
Hilberth spotted a coati, and Pabrö could barely contain his excitement.
“He’s a male – look at the size of his balls! Usually they travel in groups but sometimes the alpha males like him will travel alone.”
We walked up to a distinctive Guanacaste tree and Pabrö talked about their significance to this region, which was the last province to join Costa Rica. Pabrö told me about how the Costa Rican army defeated William Walker, a diminutive American white supremacist and “filibuster” or military adventurer, who attempted to conquer Nicaragua and Costa Rica in the hopes of annexing them for the United States in the 1850s. I was struck by the fact that while I knew nothing about this episode in history, it’s probably taught in every school in Central America.
After a few hours hiking at Curu, we repaired to a Costa Rican “soda” or humble canteen and sat on plastic chairs next to a river enjoying a round of cold drinks. After a long talk about politics the conversation turned toward Santa Teresa and how much it’s changed since Pabrö moved there in 2001.
“The place is five times bigger than it was,” he said. “People come here to see nature and virgin beaches. How can we keep that?”
[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]