GUACALILLO, Puntarenas – Wilmer González and his coworker, Mauricio Oviedo, leaped over the side of a 50-seater canvas-covered safari boat into a small, two-man motor boat at the mouth of the Río Tárcoles on the Pacific coast.
The two clung to the side of the larger craft as they found their balance.
In September and October, when torrential rains drench Costa Rica’s Central Valley, the Tárcoles rages, rushing out to sea and forming rapids around fallen trees and piles of trash.
Settled, González and Oviedo let go of the safari boat, bounce over the whitewater and steered toward the Guacalillo tributary, a 10-kilometer-long, narrow mangrove-lined lagoon fed by the Tárcoles. The lagoon runs parallel to the shore roughly half a kilometer inland.
They grabbed a tree branch and pulled the boat toward an embankment littered with paper and waste. As they reached into the brush to pick it clean, the men began to joke.
“Careful those crocodiles don’t get you,” González said.
“Yeah, mae,” Oviedo replied – using a ubiquitous Tico slang name to refer to his workmate. “Those crocodiles are a pain.”
González turned around and looked toward the safari boat, holding up his arm.
“Sometimes you stick your hand in the water and you don’t pull it out,” he said and laughed.
Oviedo and González have found seasonal work with EcoJungle Cruises, a tourism company that cleans the Guacalillo mangrove and offers nature tours along the river.
For the remainder of the rainy season, both will help collect trash from the wildlife-rich marsh, a task which the project’s owners say must be done every day.
On a recent Thursday, the two, both dressed in blue T-shirts and jeans, González wearing black sandals and Oviedo’s pant legs tucked into his white socks, zipped down the estuary, reaching into the water and hauling aboard beer crates, coffee makers, plastic buckets and water bottles, shoes, gas containers and more.
“This is San José’s waste dump,” said Junior Agüero, a boat captain for EcoJungle Cruises. “It’s not in the Central Valley. It’s here.”
The Río Tárcoles has a reputation as one of Central America’s dirtiest waterways. Fed by the Río Virilla, which crosses the San José metropolitan area, the Tárcoles amasses garbage from across the Central Valley and unloads it into offshoots like the Guacalillo, the Pacific Ocean and onto Guacalillo’s neighboring beaches.
While few people live along Gacalillo’s shoreline – and most of the property owners are seasonal residents – the heaps of rubbish along the coast are eye-opening to visitors.
“Once, I remember, a man came here from Alajuela and asked, ‘why is this beach such a dump?’” said Agüero, who has lived nearby in Orotina his entire life. “I told him, because you people in the Central Valley throw crap all over the place.”
During the rainy season, the amount of trash that the Tárcoles dumps in Guacalillo swells as floods and rivers swallow scattered debris on streets and sidewalks and westward-flowing rivers storm toward the Pacific.
The workers at EcoJungle Cruises said they fill several bags with trash each time they clean the mangrove. What they are able to collect, though, is a small sample of the mounds of trash that afflict the coast.
During a four-hour cleanup in May, the Costa Rica-based recycling organization Terra Nostra and 500 volunteers picked up eight tons of solid waste along a one-kilometer stretch of beach in Guacalillo.
In September, Terra Nostra’s squad visited Playa Azul, also near the mouth of the Río Tárcoles, and collected three tons of solid waste and 730 rubber tires.
Terra Nostra will send this data to the marine conservation group, The Ocean Conservancy, an organization that, in 2009, calculated that 400,000 volunteers recovered 6.8 million pounds of coastal trash across the planet.
The United Nations Environment Program calls marine litter one of the most “pervasive and solvable pollution problems plaguing the world’s oceans.”
Agüero, the boat captain, agrees.
“The solution isn’t to have two or three or 100 people cleaning up the trash everyday, the solution is to not throw garbage in the river in the first place,” he said.
Oscar Jiménez is an auto mechanic. He owns a shop in Tibás, a district north of San José, and 15 years ago, he purchased a beach cabin in Guacalillo.
Jiménez acknowledges that until he bought his property, he wasn’t bothered by where his junk ended up.
“We had never thought about it before,” he said. “But suddenly, with that cabin, our ignorance here became our problem there. We are pigs here in San José and it only takes one trip to Guacalillo to realize that.”
Now, Jiménez participates regularly in Terra Nostra’s cleanups and recycles what he can at home. He sells leftover car oil for ₡5,000 ($10) per barrel (50 gallons) to a local company that burns the greasy lube in boilers and he vends his scrap metal to a Guatemalan-owned construction group for ₡50 ($0.10) per kilogram.
Leaning against his garage wall is a wiry, six-foot tall statue of a man that he assembled from broken shock absorbers, old break drums and steel ball bearings. He plans to mount his new figurine at his cabin in Guacalillo.
“The parts look better like this than strewn across the beach, don’t you think?” Jiménez said, pointing to the ornament.
Back at the dock at EcoJungle Cruises, Oviedo and González hurled aground two black bags that were tearing at the sides. The two will take the trash to the municipal waste treatment facility.
Luckily, the crocodiles didn’t bite today.
“Look, both hands,” González said as he tossed one bag ashore. “Ready for tomorrow.”