SANTA ROSA NATIONAL PARK, Guanacaste — This voyage is not for the faint of car.
On Friday I drove from San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, to El Jobo, Costa Rica, a small town in the far northwest corner of the country, next to Bahía Salinas, to go kitesurfing.
The road out of La Cruz starts out nicely paved but soon turns into a gravel washboard, the kind of road you drive in second gear at 25 mph if you don’t want to risk blowing a tire, or worse.
On this road I found Cometa Copal, which had invited me to try its kitesurfing lessons. Acting proprietor Frank Martínez López and I conspired to go out Saturday morning — wind allowing.
Apparently kitesurfing is one of the few adventures in Costa Rica that is canceled when the weather doesn’t cooperate. (I never saw anything canceled because of rain!)
I asked Frank for lodging suggestions, and he sent me to Casa del Viento (“House of the Wind”) in the humble pueblo of El Jobo, where the manager, Nelson, a friendly young Tico with dreads tied behind his head, set me up with a nice room for $30. I got some work done, had a good dinner of rice and shrimp for $10, got some more work done and went to bed.
In the morning Frank texted in Spanish: “there is no wind. i am on the beach right now and the sea looks like a lake. right now it’s not even worth trying. i checked the forecast and it got even worse. apparently not until monday will there be a little wind.”
And so — this was a first — I took a wind check. And drove on.
While I was in the area, I had a hankering to find the secret airstrip that U.S. Marine Col. Oliver North, poster child for the Iran-Contra scandal, used to fly weapons into Costa Rica to arm the Contras during the 1980s war in Nicaragua. I’d heard there was also a private ranch used by the CIA to train the Contras, and I wanted to find that too.
Also, I wanted to visit Santa Rosa National Park, both the northern Murciélagos sector (renowned for bad roads) and the southern Santa Rosa sector (renowned for a famous battle where a Costa Rican army routed the forces of the would-be emperor of Central America, William Walker, in 1855, but more on that in my next story).
Imagine my surprise when I saw on AnywhereCostaRica.com that Ollie North’s old airstrip and training camp happened to be on the road between me and Santa Rosa — land formerly owned by Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, who was overthrown by the Sandinistas that the Contras were fighting against. The website said the former Contra training camp was now used to train the Fuerza Pública (the National Police).
My surprise turned to delight Saturday morning when the road turned paved at Soley. I cruised happily through the Junquillal Wildlife Refuge on my way to Cuajiniquil. (Who thinks of these names?)
Arriving in the latter, I stopped to ask for directions at a grocery store and to visit a hotel next door, the Bahía Santa Elena Lodge. The owner, Manuel, gave me good directions to the park. And then I asked him if the Ollie North airstrip and training camp weren’t right down the road.
Oh, no, he said, that was way over here — and he pointed on my map to a distant spot very near the beach, Playa Potrero Grande, site of the famous surf break called Ollie’s Point, in the southwest part of Santa Elena Peninsula. He said the landing strip was in a valley between steep mountains where nobody could see planes land.
The map showed no roads leading there, and my idea of visiting the spot started to evaporate, unless I was ready to slash my way through the jungle with a machete — or take a boat with hardcore surfers and try to catch my first ride on one of Costa Rica’s biggest waves.
Manuel said the airstrip just down the road from Cuajiniquil was used by Anastasio Somoza, who owned much of the land in this area until he was overthrown in 1979 and killed by a rocket-propelled grenade in 1980 in Paraguay. (Famous New York Daily News headline: “Somoza slain by bazooka.”)
I put my Ollie dreams on hold and settled for driving into the Murciélagos sector of Santa Rosa National Park, named for the Islas Murciélagos (Bat Islands) off the western tip of the peninsula, where there is good scuba diving.
But on the way I saw an official-looking, guarded compound flying the Costa Rican flag. I turned down the narrow road (which was clearly not open to the public) and asked the guard at the checkpoint with the crossbar if this was the Fuerza Pública training camp. He said yes, it was.
I told him I had read that this was where Ollie North used to train the Contras back in the ’80s, and I asked him if this was true. The kindly guard said no, he didn’t think so, he heard that was somewhere else, but that was a long time ago and he wasn’t sure.
I asked him if there was an airstrip here where CIA planes used to fly in arms for the Contras. He said no, the airstrip just up the road was used by Somoza, not by the Contras. I thanked him and drove away in reverse on the narrow road.
I soon came to a fenced field on the left with a sign saying, “Ollie North Landed Here.” I’m just kidding — it said, “Ministry of Public Security National Police School / Property of the State / Entry Prohibited.”
The field was remarkably long, straight and narrow — undeniably an old landing strip. Parts of the strip were barely visible, when I stopped in the right places, beyond the grass that had overgrown it.
So this was where Bazooka So’ used to land his private jet, I thought. Interesting. I felt like I was driving next to a goose’s grave.
Soon the road got rough enough to shift into 4-wheel-drive, and I got excited when I thought I would have to cross a river, but it was just a big puddle, and there was an easy way around it.
Finally I came to the gates of Santa Rosa, the first national park ever established in Costa Rica, in 1971 — and the gates were closed.
I was surprised to see this, as it was barely 11 a.m., and we all know that the Ticos get up and go to work very early.
I got out and slid a big steel bolt to open the gate. I drove through, parked my car and reclosed the gate, waiting for someone to come out and greet me, at least a dog.
I didn’t even hear crickets. It was one of the most silent places I’ve ever been.
There were three or four buildings around but not a soul in sight. I approached the buildings with an “Upe,” expecting to have to pay an entry fee, but nobody answered.
So I kept driving. The road soon got considerably worse, forcing me to stay in first gear and to wonder if I was making a serious mistake. I came to a fork in the road saying that one playa was 17 km and one bahía was 8, while Bahía El Hachal was 5 km to the right. So I went right, fingers crossed that I could traverse these three miles.
I crawled up and down steep, rutted hills on this one-lane dirt track, with vines scraping the top of my car and branches scraping the sides, constantly looking for the safest place to aim my car. I entered a tunnel of foliage where it got so dark I turned on my lights.
Other than butterflies and pretty blue birds, I saw one animal, which seemed to be a metaphor for the progress I was making — a turtle crossing the road.
For a while I enjoyed the rare luxury of driving without a seat belt, which hardly seemed necessary at 5-10 miles an hour. But then I came to one hill so steep I put my seat belt on — in case I turned over.
I came to a place where erosion had washed out the right side of the road so badly that it looked like there was barely room for my two tires to pass — and should the right side give way under the weight of my car, I could easily flip into a ravine.
Here I actually got out of the car and studied the road.
And then I remembered the news story I wrote a few days ago about four young French women who stopped their rental car at the Río Ario between Sámara and Santa Teresa to assess whether it was safe to cross. Masked, armed men lying in wait emerged from hiding, overpowered them, stole everything they had, sexually assaulted them and left them tied up in an abandoned house for the night, one of them completely naked.
I quickly got back in my car and scooted across the narrow passage.
My thoughts took a darker turn. Never mind the state of the road; what if there were bandits here? I would be a sitting duck.
Nobody in the world knew where I was. There wasn’t even a park ranger at the entrance who knew I had entered. What would happen if two guys in masks appeared out of nowhere brandishing guns?
Well, I reasoned, they would get my car, my wallet, my passport, my computer, my phone, my camera, my suitcase, my two backpacks — everything I have with me, which is everything I value most. They could leave me here stabbed or shot, wounded or dead.
I’m not usually much of a worrier, but the longer I drove down this desolate track, the more I thought about it.
I have a philosophy about risk based on something I heard an Indian guru once said: “If my house burns down, I will build another house.” I’m prepared to be robbed of my wallet, my passport, my computer, my phone and my car, because I can replace all those things.
But my life? Well, that was a little melodramatic to be thinking about. But come to think of it, yes — I’d rather lose my life living it on my terms in the place I choose than be half-alive on someone else’s terms in a place I don’t.
My 5 km were up, and the sight of a lovely blue-green ocean banished my dark thoughts.
Bahía El Hachal, a rocky beach devoid of sand, was beautiful, wild and completely deserted — it felt like perhaps the most isolated place I’d ever been. There wasn’t a single boat visible on the ocean, not a scrap of trash on the beach, no planes in the sky, no sign whatsoever that anybody but me lived on this planet.
I took pictures, took in the view and wished I could relax and enjoy it longer, but I decided to get out of here before two tough guys with machetes decided to join me. It’s a shame you have to think about this, but you do. Tourists always say they hate crowds, but when you find yourself totally isolated in the middle of nowhere with no cell service, you realize you are completely vulnerable to robbery.
I turned around and drove back. I came upon a white-tailed deer in the road that stared at me as if to say, “Who the hell are you?” and then bounded into the woods.
At the park entrance, the ranger had returned to his station. He flagged me down to say hello, chat with me and deprive me of $15. I asked him if there were ever any robberies here, and he furrowed his brow and shook his head and said, “No, this place is totally safe.”
I asked him about Oliver North and the two stories I’d heard about the Contra training camp and the CIA airstrip — they were either right up the road or all the way on the other side of the peninsula.
The ranger — I didn’t get his name — walked to a big map on the wall and pointed to the exact same spot that hotel owner Manuel had — the secret airfield was right next to Ollie’s Point, just behind Playa Potrero Grande. He said it was in a valley between two mountain where nobody could see the planes land — the same thing Manuel had said.
But, the ranger went on, the CIA probably used Somoza’s airstrip too, who knows? Why wouldn’t they? And as for the training camp now used by the Fuerza Pública, who’s to say they didn’t use that to train the Contras too, especially since it was so close to an airstrip?
I had my answer.
Did Ollie North fly arms for the Contras into Somoza’s old airstrip and train Contras in the Fuerza Pública camp right outside the Murciélagos sector of Santa Rosa National Park?
Definitely, definitely maybe.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Driving north from Liberia on the Inter-American Highway, there are two well-signed entrances to Santa Rosa National Park: the Santa Rosa sector, 37 km (23 miles) north of Liberia and Murciélagos, 10 km (6 miles) farther. The Santa Rosa road is paved, but don’t even think of entering Murciélagos without 4-wheel drive. You could also take a bus from Liberia to La Cruz and ask the driver to drop you off at the park turnoff, then take a taxi or catch a ride with someone to the park entrance, which in both sectors is several kilometers from the highway.
Hours: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.
Admission: $20 for foreigners, ₡1,100 for nationals and residents. Admission is good for the day at both sectors.