Costa Rica...

by Lynn Atkinson

The tire of our 4-wheel drive jeep blew after days of tortuous road conditions and lethal potholes. Minutes later, a truckload of over 20 farm-workers pulled up and we could only watch in amazement as the shredded tire was removed, the spare remounted and we continued on our way - all in less than 15minutes. In many ways, the Costa Ricans showed us their generosity. One of our first tour guides even greeted us at the hotel with, "Good, finally some wheelchairs!" We were sceptical but as we later found out, he was sincere.

My Costa Rican adventure began with musings over dinner between myself and fellow MS'er and friend Linda McGowan. We had both wanted to take a holiday together. An article by Montrealer Lawrence Poole in the Penguin Rough Guide book Able To Travel Stories by and for Travellers with Disabilities -started me dreaming. A phone call to Larry gleaned some information, so despite the usual warnings of "It's not accessible" repeated again and again by every travel agent we talked to, we decided togo. After all, if I expected every place I went to be accessible,I'd never leave home! I would find an attendant, since I'm notable to travel without help. Linda would share the first part o four holiday, and then go on her own by public bus to the coast while we rented a car.

We landed in the capital San Jose, November 16 at the tail end of the rainy season. As I suffer from the heat, I had borrowed a cooling vest from the MS Clinic in Vancouver in anticipation of temperatures in the 80-90 degree range coupled with high humidity. Manufactured by an American company, the Steele Vest came complete with freezer bags that fit neatly into a nylon shell. Armed with the vest and my trusty Samson that converted my manual chair into a power chair without the added weight, Tamara, Linda and I were ready for a jungle adventure.

Arriving in San Jose, however, was certainly a let-down.It's a dirty ugly city that, fortunately, does not reflect what's in the rest of the country. The airport is accessible although the toilet I used, complete with cockroaches, was not. We spent the next day resting in our hotel except for a short and arduous excursion to the market, which we found closed. City streets in San Jose are a nightmare of potholes, foot-high curbs and non-existent side-walks. However, one young Tico, Linda flagged down for a push across a busy intersection, stayed with her pushing the chair for the next 45 minutes refusing any payment with a wave of his hand before disappearing into the crowd - our first experience of Costa Rican generosity.

We decided to use our hotel, the Corobicci, as a base for the first three days and take tours out from the city. The hotel is adequate but over-priced. A much nicer and cheaper alternative El Sesteo recommended to us by Larry Poole. One of the units has a full kitchen,accessible bathroom with wheel-in shower. El Sesteo has a pool and a delightful open-air patio with a view.

Our first tour out from San Jose was on an aerial tram,completed in 1994, through the cloud forest of Braullio CarrilloNational Park When our tour guide, Jose, picked us up at the hotel and explained that one of the tram cars had been built without seats to accommodate wheelchairs, we were suitably impressed. However, the wheelchair tram had no roof so we opted for one of the covered cars, as tropical rain showers are the norm in this climate.

At the entrance to the reserve I was lifted off the bus and onto an open-sided shuttle truck that took us to the visitor's centre where we watched a video and were briefed on canopy exploration and the construction of the aerial tram, brainchild of scientist Donald Perry. Perry's mission is to stop the destruction of the rain forest by using the tram to show people one of the most complex communities of life on earth. The tram is a two-mile excursion into the rain forest, home to two-thirds of all rain forest species, many of which never see the jungle floor. Traditionally, the difficulties of reaching the forest tree-tops have always inhibited its study. Now the aerial tram allows visitor (including those in wheelchairs) and scientists to 'fly' through this hidden canopy of life.

Our guide, Jose, also took us on a hike, pushing and pulling our wheelchairs along part of the forest trail while explaining the fascinating symbiotic relationship between plants and wildlife. His enthusiasm and knowledge made the difference between just `looking' and actually 'seeing' what was around us.Note: It is advisable to rent a car (or take a bus if you are able) and make your way to the park when it opens at 6:30 a.m.,as the local tours reach the site later in the morning when there's less chance of seeing wildlife.

The next day we opted for a tour to Tortuguero on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. We were advised that the most accessible hotel was the Ilan-Ilan, named after the pungent yellow flower that grows there. We were picked up at our hotel at7:30 the next morning and began a marathon journey by dirt road and boat into the jungle.

Our transportation was an old `Bluebird' school bus that had seen better days; I'm sure I felt every pothole and rock on the road from San Jose to Tortuguero. After a three hours drive and one emergency stop on the side of the road for me (when you're dealing with life's necessities privacy is not an issue), we stopped at a banana plantation for a tour. Then a picnic lunch in the open air before boarding the river boat. Our driver, Tobias,carried me off the bus, down the steep bank and onto the boat.

Our cruise took us 65 miles up a unique series of inland canals to the mouth of the Caribbean. We made many stops on the way for wildlife viewing of crocodiles, caymans, howler monkeys,toucans, snowy egrets, vultures, a pink spoon-bill, and sloths.As we motored close to coconut trees, and luxuriant growth over-hanging the river, I felt like `Bogey' on the African Queen.Gradually, our city eyes `learned' to see the animals along the bank behind nature's expert camouflage.

Accommodation at the Ilan Ilan was suitably rustic; because the area has been declared a wildlife reserve, development has been kept to a minimum. Tortugeuro is accessible only by water.Linda and I were carried off the boat and up a bank of 10 steps to dry land. After a welcome 30 minute cold shower, the Caribbean side is very humid (80-90 deg.F, 26-30 deg.C) we had dinner together with the eight people on our tour. Although Tortuguerois expensive, two nights, three days for $227USD, I advise staying a minimum of two nights so you have a day, free of travelling, in which to explore. In order to avoid the long ride back you can also fly from Tortugeuro back to San Jose.

Tortugeuro is the largest nesting area in the Caribbean for the green sea turtles. If you get up at 3:30 in the morning you'll see the turtle hatchlings on the beach as they make their hazardous journey to the sea. Although I wasn't feeling well that day so missed it, our guide dragged Linda's wheelchair backwards across the sand (not easy) and then, as the turtles were spotted along the beach,brought some to show her. Luckily, however I didn't miss the spectacle altogether thanks to a young Tico we met in Tamarindoon the Pacific side.

Back at the Corrobici in San Jose two days later, we shed our dirty, sweaty jungle clothes and treated ourselves to a meal at the hotel's fabulous Italian restaurant (accessible). About$15 CDN bought us wine, dinner, coffee and dessert plus some decadent after-dinner chocolates - freshly made ! The next day we rented a Suzuki Sidekick 4-wheel drive (low enough for me to accomplish a standing transf0er with help) and headed west through the central valley to the Pacific. If you plan to do any exploring off the main highway a jeep is more practical, although we met people travelling by car. The roads in Costa Rica make our logging roads here in B.C. seem like garden paths; they are terrible. Because vehicles including semi-trailers loaded with logs swerve to miss the volcanic craters (potholes) in the middle of the road, they often end up in the oncoming lane - too bad if you're in the way. Drivers must be continually on the alert. Dodging potholes, stray cattle and oncoming traffic is strictly a daylight activity so be sure you've found your resting place by 6 p.m. when the sun sets.

Following the winding roads we made our way to the small town of Sarchi, home of Costa Rica's traditional brightly painted ox carts. The best place to buy handicrafts is at the artisan's cooperative, a modern complex with a mall-like atmosphere. Easily accessible, if somewhat commercial. For more of a traditional village atmosphere and for exquisite pottery, the small town of Guatil near Santa Cruz in Guanacaste province is the place to go.Here, artisans have their pottery booths on the side of the road so you can drive by and literally pick the piece you want, thus avoiding the hassle of loading and unloading wheelchairs and transferring in the 90 deg heat.

The next day we headed for Tamarindo on the Pacific side,but due to my navigational "skills", and poor to non-existent sign-posting, we ended up close to the Nicaraguan border a couple of hours later. Now I think of it, those stop signs and soldiers stationed in the middle of nowhere on the highway did seem a little odd. Note: Ask for directions as often as you have to.With gesturing, lots of "much as gracias" and charades you just might find your way, but don't count on it.

In Tamarindo we stayed at Cabinas Zully Mar in "downtown"Tamarindo where the dirt road ends in a clutch of bar-restaurant son the beach. ($30US night, ceiling fans, refrigerator, clean,large bathroom with just 6" lip into a big cold water shower)Note: when it's 80 degrees outside you don't want a room with hot water showers! Tamarindo is all relatively accessible and everything is connected by dirt road. My travelling companion,Tamara, went off to do some scouting around and came back with the news that a local American named Tom made the best meals in town. His Tico friend Edwin would get me down on the beach the next day to see the turtles lay their eggs.

That night we feasted on a delicious meal of fresh caught tuna, and gallo pinto (the national dish of beans and rice with hot chilies) served from a large fry pan laid on the rough wooden plank tables under the starry night sky. The next day we decided to drive to Playa Grande and Las Baulas National Park to checkout beach access. Even though Tom had assured us that Edwin, who was studying for his masters degree in turtle biology, would get me down to the beach to witness the nesting of the largest reptile in the world, the baulas (leatherback) sea turtle, I had my doubts. Around 80 leatherbacks, some weighing over a ton, come every night to nest on the beach at Playa Grande from October through February, making it one of the most important nesting sites in the world. Although there is an ongoing battle between developers and conservationists, the area has only one hotel and Costa Ricans are learning to protect the turtle by allowing very limited harvesting of the eggs. Admission to the beach is 75cents, no flashlights are allowed, and only small groups are allowed access at night when the turtles are laying.

Arriving at the hotel, Las Tortugas, (not accessible), we were told to check the house five minutes away down the dirt road. We found a luxurious 3-bedroom beach house, each room rented for $60US a night. We decided to stay, sharing the house with a couple and their daughter from Chilliwack. Although accessing the toilet was a bit of a squeeze, the shower outside was easily accessible. I put a plastic deck chair under the spray and enjoyed my `shower with a view.' (Many hotels near the salt-water in Cost Rica have showers outside.) As we shortly found out, the Quinns had met our departed friend, Linda,further north and were surprised to see another adventurer on wheels. That night we picked up Edwin in Tamarindo and he directed us to drive along a road close to the beach. A turtle was soon sighted. We got out and Edwin piggy-backed me along the sand.From my perch I could see the wide tractor-like paths made by the turtles as they left the sea and moved slowly up the beach. The bright stars overhead and an infra-red torch gave off a strange otherworldly glow as we plodded along the water's edge to the accompaniment of Edwin's quiet puffing. Ten minutes later he dropped me in the sand just inches away from a 500 pound leatherback. I watched in surprised awe as the turtle laboriously dug a 3-foot hole in the soft brown sand with her back flippers,and laid over 60 large white eggs by the light of the full moon.As she covered them and began her slow journey back to the sea,the primordial ritual I had been privileged to witness somehow gave meaning to my own life.

The reproductive instinct that drove the turtle from the freedom of the sea to her slow labours on land, seemed like my own life journey. My wheelchair, as useless in the sand as the reptile's hulking body, could have put an end to my instinctive curiosity to explore the world around me had it not been for the help of another. Edwin had not had any sleep for the previous two nights as he had been up tagging turtles with National Geographic teams,but his exhaustion did not stand in the way of his appreciation of nature and his wish to share that experience, in whatever way possible, with another human being. I thank him for that gift. Edwin would take no money for his labours. The next day with our iguana's blessing and a multitude of memories, we left Costa Rica


Able to Travel True Stories by and for People with disabilities. A Rough Guide Special Edited by Alison Walsh. Available in bookstores.
See article `Costa Rica-A Month in Paradise' by Lawrence Poole. Lawrence recommends Janine Fafard a travel agent based in San Jose. Call Rainbow Connections Tel/Fax 506 40-73-25 She also works with Panorama Tours Tel 506 33-02-33 a big Canadian operator.

Able To Travel --- mentions that flying anywhere in Costa Rica is relatively inexpensive and is often smoother and more relaxing than rough dusty roads. Although there are no lifting services for boarding or exiting there are plenty of hands around to help. Sansa, the domestic airline flys to areas in 20 minutes that would take 4-5 hours by car. Costa Rica is very mountainous. Also, because of the many different climates and life zones in the country, a short flight can put you in a very different setting quickly.

Car Rental
We used Elegante, part of the Fun Sun Tour package we purchased). They are based in San Jose with outlets throughout Costa Rica. However I wasn't impressed with them: the break fluid light indicator was low before we even started, and we blew a tire after only 8 days driving. Cost: 8 days $588 plus $20 day insurance. Lawrence Poole recommends Adobe car rental Tel 1-800-826-1134 (US only) 506 221-5425 Fax 506 221-9286. I believe this rental agency accepts the insurance on credit cards whereas other agencies charge the $20/day insurance. (Check this).

Taxis - A good way to get around. Average $4/hr - $10 from the airport to most hotels in San Jose.

As mentioned, in San Jose the El Sesteo is accessible. Write Apartado 46-1007, San Jose Tel 506 296-1805 Fax 506 296-1865. (200 metres south of Mac Donald's Sabana Park). For other hotels see Poole's article.

General Information
The New Key to Costa Rica by Beatrice Blake and Anne Becher. Contains one page of info. specifically for disabled travellers. "Edmont" and Edgar Montoya can supply disabled travellers with anything they need including hand controls installed on your car. He speaks English and can be reached on his cell phone 29-26-32 (wait for beep and dial 292 on a touch tone phone).

Reprinted from:
We're Accessible
32-1675 Cypress St.
Vancouver, BC V6J3L4 Canada


Lynn Atkinson publishes this quarterly newsletter on travel and travel resources.

Back to Travel Tales