It's impossible to predict the course an overland adventure will follow. The route is easy to plan, but the people and the environment end up shaping the entire experience into something more than a neatly plotted line on a map. Some individuals travel for the culture and community, while others seek the wonder of the natural world. On my six-month adventure through the Americas, I found that the natural world and local culture are intimately intertwined. In retrospect that fact should have been self-evident and obvious but it wasn't until I found myself on the road that it became clear to me. Despite my stack of Lonely Planet guidebooks, containing countless clues and hints, the most inspiring and satisfying moments were provided by the kindness and knowledge of those who knew the area best.
From the abundance of websites and blogs dedicated to the beauty and accessibility of Costa Rica, it was surprising to find a place with no tourists, especially one with spectacular beauty, and of course, abundant rainfall. Taptani National Park can be found on Wikipedia and dozens of other travel websites, however, with the right local contacts, you can see it in a very different way. Such was my luck when I checked in at the Orosi Valley School for my two week spanish language immersion school. Flor Granados Calderon was my host and teacher in Orosi but it was her husband Rodolfo that exposed me to the heart of Taptani. Sometime during my first week living with the family I learned that he was not only the general manager of the local and state-owned, electricity sub-station; but that he also had keys to the maintenance roads into the park to monitor the multiple hydro-electric projects located inside. One afternoon, after my morning studies were over, Rodolfo and I took a ride in my 1997 Land Cruiser through the town of Orosi, the public areas of Taptani, and eventually deep into the remote regions of the park. With Rodolfo behind the wheel we got lots of waves and smiles in town and rolled right through the park entrances and locked gates.
Rainfall in the jungle exceeds 400 inches a year and the growth is dense and magnificent. The roads are also very muddy, so halfway up the canyon which was resplendent in the color green with all its hundreds of variations mixed with vibrant flowers and low hanging clouds—I decided it was time I took the wheel before we could drive no further. My limited Spanish and his non-existent English made for a long quiet walk as we wandered on foot down a narrow, sopping wet trail for a few miles all by ourselves, from time-to-time we'd still end up find ourselves in a humorous exchange. It was a special opportunity to enjoy the rainforest the way few people can and without Rodolfo, I would have spent the afternoon 25 miles away in the structured, organized and sanitized portion of the park. After spending 2 months in the jungles of Central America I felt as if I'd found the heart of it. It was wet, warm and beautiful.
Two months, five countries and several thousand miles later I found myself camped on a desolate beach in the desert of northern Peru. How I found myself on this postcard perfect beach is not a result of close relationship like the one I shared with Flor and Rodolfo, but the product of a brief conversation at a the Las Corrales hotel in Mancora. Just south of the world famous surfing locale, which came highly recommended by my guide book. When I first arrived in town the hotel was full, but after a bug infested night on a lumpy mattress at a more expensive and obviously lesser quality joint nearby, I decided to come back, and I checked into Las Corrales on Monday morning. Unfortunately, I don't remember the name of the owner, nor her husband. All I know is that for 3 days they treated me like family, washed my Land Cruiser without my knowledge, fed me very well and provided safe secure parking and a beachside bed for the grand total of $28 a night. Despite the intimate setting, I even felt like I had all the solitude I needed to catch up on my blog and emails and take long walks up and down the beach taking pictures. Even now, 3 years later, that hotel stands out as one of the favorites of my trip.
The flood of Peruvian weekend tourists were about due to check in, and I knew it was time for me to get back on the road south. As I was packing up and thanking them for their kindness the owner's husband asks me what my plans were after I left Mancora. I told him that I didn't really have any—heading toward the town of Chiclayo and exploring the nearby ruins was about as much as I had on the agenda. My traveling approach was pretty simple. Take each day at a time. If I liked a place I'd stay for a while and if not I'd move on. (A great plan until the money starts running out and you're still 5,000 miles from Ushuaia, but that's a different story.) He recommended that I visit a beach only about 100 miles south of town. I asked him why and then he told me exactly what I wanted to hear. It required some pretty difficult four-wheeling to get there and that I would have it all to myself. It was where he and his family went to escape the tourist destination they called home. With his recommendation and a hand drawn map in hand I thanked them and hit the road south.
One-hundred miles later it all made sense. I had to wander my way through a natural gas refinery and pump system then down onto a very soft access road to some wells. With the tires aired down and the pull-pal handy, just in case, I set off down the road. The wells only lasted a few miles but the road carried me 30 miles down the beach. After some exploration on foot through the dunes, I found a route to the beach. 15 minutes later I set up the Eezi-Awn tent, planted my camp chair in the sand and reveled in the miles and miles of beach I had to myself. 3 days later I packed up the truck, having not seen a soul since setting up a camp and hit the highway south again. I never would have found that beach without the local knowledge. I wasn't even sure I could drive through the refinery and never would have done so without the crudely drawn map in my hand. At this point in my trip I had learned to listen to the locals and trust their opinions. So what did I do when my route had 600 miles of un-inhabited road ahead of me? Of course I took to the internet. Well not exactly.
Check back tomorrow for part two.