With me along some Strip of Herbage strown
That just divides the desert from the sown,
Where name of Slave and Sultán scarce is known,
And pity Sultán Máhmúd on his Throne.
[Verse X from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (E. Fitzgerald, translator)]
I think of “Sultán Máhmúd” while I spit another watermelon seed at the scurrying hermit crabs. They whisk the seeds away to eat later.
Melon juice drips on my bare chest. I am sitting on the edge of the wooden porch. I do not want a sticky surface to walk on. A sticky body? No worries. The ocean is a mere 30 meters away. In a few moments, as the waves cleanse my body, I’ll watch Magnificent Frigatebirds sail gracefully overhead. They will likely be joined by Black and Turkey Vultures and Brown Pelicans.
The hot sun will soon assert itself. I will leave the ocean, rinse off the salt water at the outdoor shower, return to the porch and resume reading. My book is interesting. Nevertheless, reading for long periods eventually makes me drowsy. But, after a snack, a swim and a cooling shower, reading will, again, be peaceful and natural.
Poor “Sultán Máhmúd”!
The world is full of Sultán Máhmúds. Always wanting more money or more power or a bigger house. They are a mystery to me. In much of business, and particularly in politics, they vie for the various thrones even though they could “buy and sell” me many times over. I do not understand why.
I have seen them on vacation. They fly into the airport in Liberia and are whisked by a driver to the Hilton or the Hyatt or a clone of such. A bracelet is put on their arms. A wave, and waiters race to do their bidding. Evenings require a decision of which theme restaurant to attend.
I worked for a man once who drove a Porsche, stayed only at the finest places, and ate at the best restaurants. He loved passing a $50 bill to the maître-d to ensure we were treated royally. He was always thinking about work. His marriage failed. He would have hated this place.
Here, on occasion, dinner consists of bean tostadas. Other days, we knock on a door to let the cook at a local restaurant know there are clients for dinner. On go the lights. We take one of the three or four tables and order.
We bring our own coffee and other staples purchased on the long drive from San Jose. Two days a week, the fruit and vegetable truck arrives. We buy a papaya, a few more mangoes and a melon.
There really is so much wrong here. After all, the name of this beach is Zancudo—the word for mosquito in Spanish. How did it get that name? We sleep under a mosquito net.
Larger creatures can enter too. Once, I had to catch a bat and put it back outside. Another time I shared the shower with a small bird.
The cabin is a single room with a small bathroom/shower. The kitchen is a hot plate next to the sink. The village’s only road, unpaved, is next to our cabin. Most mornings a motorcycle or two rattles by at 4 or 4:30, and then a truck loudly rumbles along bouncing through the potholes.
The beach is rarely cleaned. At the margin of high tide, there is every sort of plastic trash. It is unsightly unless one finds beauty in the bright blue of a discarded flip-flop or the day-glo green of an old bleach bottle. If barefoot, one steps carefully through the plastic and other flotsam, mostly coconut shells, to enter the ocean.
There’s no beachcombing here either. Shells are almost absent because the beach has such a long, slight slope. The plastic mess, however, can be convenient. One time we needed plastic utensils and found them easily after only a few moments of searching.
There are no rules for the beach so randomly a 4-wheeler or a motorbike noisily passes by.
And the sand! Its brown, not brilliant white. The water isn’t Caribbean or Hawaiian Blue either. Not that its roily or dirty, but the soft sandy bottom, despite the gentle wave action, prevents the clarity loved by divers and snorkelers. Waves and surfing can be found an hour or so farther down the coast at Pavones.
I am a birder. That must explain why I am here. The bird list as of February 2022 is 242 species–poor by Costa Rican standards. Less than two hours to the northwest is Esquinas Rainforest lodge with a list of 398 – or drive northeast for a similar distance, up the hill to San Vito, and there is the Las Cruces Biological station run by the Organization for Tropical Studies. The list at Las Cruces is 460.
I do go birding here. There’s an old dock which allows access to the midst of some mangroves. To find it, I look for the mound where the village piles its garbage and turn toward the river/estuary. The old dock is broken. In the middle, I hang on to a rusty railing to keep from sliding off the broken concrete and lower myself to the shattered pieces lying in the mud—if the water isn’t too high to preclude passage. Then, I pull myself up the slanted slab on the other side and continue.
Behind our cabin and across the road are more mangroves. This area seems to be the alternate dump site for the village inhabitants. There are crabs scurrying about consuming the detritus. The mud slurps at my shoes, but I can work my way inside for about 3 meters and see what birds might be present.
As I write, my next visit to this place, the 13th, is already planned. If I come here so often, it must be because it is inexpensive.
Indeed, I would like to claim that adherence to one of my favorite quotes from Thoreau, “my greatest skill has been to want but little,” explains why I am here. I have been fortunate to care little what someone else has. I retired earlier than many of my contemporaries. I felt like the overarching goal of my career was to obtain time, not money. This is one of my favorite places to spend that time.
I am here because I like it.
Clearly, I need to start again. Yes, Zancudo means mosquito. I suspect the name may deter more visitors than do the insects. They are no worse here than anywhere else in the lowland tropics. Something I like, however, is that this is a beach where you can’t buy a t-shirt with its name on it.
The cabin, while small, is spotless. Everything works. The time for walking to the beach is measured in seconds.
The people are friendly. The little restaurants serve excellent food.
We avoid holidays. The rest of the time the beach is nearly deserted. We have many photos taken first to the north and then to the south, showing 200m or more of the beach, and there are no other people. If others are present, it is usually one or two and not close by.
Those early morning noisy vehicles? There are only two or three. We always arise about 5 anyway. That way I can be in the water and watch the Brown Pelicans as they travel from the west end of the beach, where they spend the night, to the east where the foraging must be better.
The pelicans sail along the crest of the near-shore waves employing “wave-slope soaring.” They take advantage of the lift provided by “localized updrafts caused by traveling ocean surface gravity waves”–an explanation, taken from a scientific paper, that makes it sound like Quantum Mechanics.
I keep only enough of my head above water to breathe. I want the pelicans to think I am a floating coconut so they will pass overhead. They are not fooled. They move over a meter or two, but I still hear the whoosh of air from their wings.
I watch the sun as it rises through the beachside palm trees, eventually shining brightly on me and the water. Soon enough it will be time for coffee and fresh fruit on the shady porch.
While it is necessary to step over trash on the way to the water, when the tide is out there might be 30-40 meters of soft, clean sand to cross before meeting the placid surf. Then you might walk another 30 or 40 meters, only sloshed slightly by gentle waves, until the water reaches your chin. It can be a warm, calm swimming pool.
After dark, preferably on a moonless night, the bioluminescence of phytoplankton brightens your swim. Then, when you exit the ocean, if the tide is out, the entire night sky, star-by-star, may be reflected on the beach.
A small motorbike or 4-wheeler may go flying by at any time—but there probably won’t be another for an hour or two.
That dirt road with the noisy motorcyles is all that separates the cabin from the mangroves. The trash is unpleasant, but most of the creatures one expects in that habitat are present. Consequently, within 10-20 meters of the cabin, I have seen Cocoa Woodcreepers and Common Black Hawks. Most days, a Bright-rumped Attila reminds us to eat it-eat it- eat it nooww. Often there is a Black-hooded Antshrike, whose call has been described as an “accelerating chuckle.”
Red-lored Parrots and Orange-chinned Parakeets regularly perch in the taller trees. Even better, the obligate dwellers of the mangroves are also present: Mangrove Yellow Warbler, Boat-billed Heron, Panama Flycatcher and the endemic Mangrove Hummingbird.
And the bird I shared the shower with? It was a Northern Waterthrush. Where I live in Western Colorado, a Northern Waterthrush sighting is much sought-after. Here, in the right season, one is often underfoot anytime we walk to the beach. Sitting on the porch, we see them scurrying about under the shrubs like mice.
Because we only visit annually, it is difficult to assess the abundance of mammals, but we have seen Squirrel Monkeys, White-faced Monkeys and Mantled Howler Monkeys from the cabin. The latter sometimes join the occasional motorcycle as our alarm clock.
On my last visit, near the broken-down dock, I spied a local teenage girl. She waved determinedly at me. At first, I wondered if I was being admonished for trespassing. Instead, she pointed upwards to show me a Brown-throated Sloth. Her name was Katia. In return for her favor, I showed her some birds.
When I tire of the mangroves and the beach, I drive ten minutes to adjacent rice fields. I decry recent ditching and draining that have eliminated the final vestiges of what were once large wetlands. But, when the rice fields are being plowed and many insects are exposed, the bird life is dramatic. Black and Turkey vultures are the most visible and common, but Swainson’s and Common Black Hawks also soar over the fields. Wood storks and a variety of other waders are present: Great, Snowy and Cattle Egrets, Great Blue, Green, and Little Blue Herons, and Bare-throated Tiger Herons.
Although Zancudo’s bird list is not stunning, there are Costa Rican rarities. My only sightings of Sapphire-throated Hummingbird and Veraguan Mango are here. Other Panamanian species that might be seen include Savannah and Gray-lined Hawks, Pearl Kite and Red-breasted Meadowlark.
My only meaningful complaints are the coming changes. Quiet locations such as this are vanishing. Since we have been coming a one-lane bridge has replaced a ferry. Much of the road has been paved. The last 40 kilometers formerly required two hours. Now, we complete the drive in half the time. The owner of the last sizable forest tract has divided it into lots. None have sold–yet. Don’t buy one!