FLAMINGO, Guanacaste — Not even a mess of jellyfish could ruin this sailboat adventure.
A Saturday sunset cruise with Zafira Catamaran Sailing was the perfect tonic for recovery from a Thanksgiving hurricane for two families of four from Texas and Connecticut, my Tica friend and me. I told the people from Texas I wouldn’t hold that against them, though I’m from Arkansas. They laughed and said they wouldn’t hold that against me either.
We sailed, we drank, we ate, we laughed, we danced, we took a thousand pictures. But through no fault of anybody’s, the jellyfish were hungry, so it was the shortest snorkeling ever.
Costa Rica’s Greatest Places
In this series, The Tico Times Travel section takes an in-depth look at some of Costa Rica’s greatest destinations, with multiple articles exploring the attractions of each. Throughout the month of December, we’ll visit the sumptuous Flamingo Coast — Playa Grande, Conchal, Brasilito, Flamingo, Potrero and Las Catalinas.
Zafira is one of the newer catamaran companies on the Flamingo Coast, owned by the Canadians Benoit and Valerie Houde and expertly crewed by a guide named Joshua, a crewwoman named Jessica and a captain named Alex. The boat is a dream — a 46-foot cat, 25 feet wide, made by Fountain Pajot in France in 2006, with plenty of deck space, four double cabins, a nice galley and two heads.
My compañeros were two families of four, each with a husband, wife, teenage boy and teenage girl, plus Guiselle and me and our redoubtable crew.
The weather was perfect, two days after Hurricane Otto raked northern Costa Rica with winds, rains and floods that killed 10 people. It rained lightly an hour and a half before we departed, leaving the skies full of white clouds to block the heat of the sun nicely. It didn’t start sprinkling until we returned at dark.
Joshua welcomed us with a briefing on the bow, where he talked about safety, what we would do today, and …
“So now we speak about the drinks — we have rum punch, margaritas, mojitos, beer, I have pineapple juice, mango — ” Whoa, dude, you’ve said enough.
We sailed out into Potrero Bay, everyone admiring the gorgeous coastline and islands. Most of the adults started off with a beer, knowing we had to stay sober enough to snorkel.
“Dolphins!” everyone shouted. I was in the back of the boat, and I scrambled for my camera, but by the time I got to the front, the half dozen dolphins that everyone else saw were gone.
I told everyone I was writing a story for the Tico Times, so I asked them to think of good quotes for me, and I asked if they could sit for a group picture. They were game for anything.
We sailed past virgin green hillsides where there was almost no evidence of development except at Las Catalinas on Playa Danta. We passed some seaside cliffs with a cave and an arch, and the surf breaking furiously on the rocks, covering them in milky-white foam.
Eventually we pulled up to Playa Guacamaya and its neighbor, Guacamayita, and it was time for snorkeling. Some people put on life jackets, and a few were very timid about getting in.
“Is the water cold?” one of the wives asked, though she should have known because she was sitting on the steps in back of the boat with her legs in the water.
“No!” I said. “The water is never cold in Costa Rica.”
They were reluctant to slide into the water, but finally they psyched themselves up and did it together.
Guiselle had never snorkeled before, and in fact didn’t know how to swim. Unfortunately there was no instruction on how to snorkel, perhaps because the crew thought it was so obvious.
But we got in the water — and I have to admit I found it surprisingly cold, which I later learned attracts jellyfish. Guiselle tried briefly to wear the mask and breathe through the snorkel, but she soon stripped them off and floated in her life jacket, saying that something was biting her.
I thought she was imagining it, since she had said earlier that she afraid of what was under the water. I felt nothing unusual, maybe a tiny little itch in one spot on my leg like the world’s smallest purruja had bitten me.
I tried to show her how to snorkel, but she said she couldn’t do two things at once — she could learn to snorkel or she could deal with the itch and the pain of all the mysterious creatures stinging her legs and arms, but she couldn’t do both at once. The imagination is strong with this one, I thought.
I abandoned her briefly a couple of times to dive to the bottom, where I saw … sand! Yes, flat sand on the bottom. Not a fish in sight, not a reef, nada. We had to get closer to the rocks to see those, but that was not going to happen given Guiselle’s rising preoccupation with the stinging and the itching. She later said she felt like she was being stabbed by tiny needles.
We swam back to the boat, where miraculously everyone else in our party had already climbed out of the water, including our guide, Joshua. It was the shortest snorkel ever.
“El agua está mala,” said Joshua — the water is bad. He said it was cold and full of jellyfish, or what he called medusas, and a lot of people had been stung.
He was actually waiting with a spray bottle full of vinegar, which he used to coat Guiselle’s legs and arms, telling her not to scratch (yeah, right).
I declined the vinegar spray, saying I didn’t get stung. Half the other people said they did.
But so much for that — it was time for dinner. Jessica and Joshua were cooking pinchos de pollo, in other words chicken strips speared on sticks, plus chopped raw vegetables, rice salad, bean dip, chips and salsa. Most people loved the bean dip — I think it was mostly the Texans. (Guiselle, oddly enough for a Tica, never eats beans because she says they taste like dirt.)
After dinner, I reminded everyone that I needed quotes for my story, and I turned on my voice recorder and went to work.
Duke Russell, 46, from Guilford, Connecticut, said, “Snorkeling was tough due to the hurricane.”
“Due to the hurricane?”
“Well, the atmosphere was great,” he said. (“Red, Red Wine” by UB40 was playing in the background, as if to explain his comments.) “I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
“And how were the jellyfish?”
“Not bad,” he said. “Thick skin. New Englander.”
I turned to his wife, Kiley Russell, and asked if she got stung by the jellyfish.
“I did not,” she said. I asked if she saw any fish. “No.” Any reefs? “No. nothing.”
Well, there you have it. Same experience I had.
Their daughter, Chandler Russell, 15, was more talkative.
“It’s fun. The scenery is really cool. Water’s really blue,” she said. What about the jellyfish? “They hurt.” She got stung on her leg, but she said she got stung earlier at Playa Conchal, where the two families were staying at the all-inclusive Westin Golf Resort & Spa. (Before that, they stayed at the 5-star Tabacón resort in Arenal. Come on, people, live a little.)
The other mom, Janine Townes of Dallas, said, “I did get struck by the jellyfish.”
“Struck. Struck. Stung!” Where? “On my arm, on my shoulder, and a little on my back. It’s burning and stinging.”
“So are you going to ask for your money back and write them a really bad review on Trip Advisor?”
“Absolutely not, they have no control over that,” she said. “Still a good time. This is not bad.”
Other people chimed in that we saw a rainbow, and dolphins!
I turned to the other dad, Chad Townes, 45, who works for AT&T and lives in Dallas but travels internationally for work and play.
“I love to travel and get away and experience different parts of the world,” he said. Asked what he thought of the cruise today, he said, “It was great. I just love being on the water. The scenery was phenomenal. It wasn’t too hot, it wasn’t too cold, just beautiful — the islands, the rain forest all around. I’ve been a lot of places and you don’t normally see so much greenery right over the water like this that’s not developed. So it’s really cool to see how it’s just uninhabited, nature at its best.”
With dinner and snorkeling behind us, many of the adults upgraded to rum punch, margaritas or mojitos, and the atmosphere turned a bit giddy as we milled around the bow, snapping pictures of the sunset.
I told Guiselle the website said this is not really a party boat, it’s more focused on the nature. We had a good laugh about that.
Joshua provided the final levity of the day when he jumped onto the panga that would ferry us to shore, fell flat on his butt and lay there laughing in pain.
“I’m not getting in the boat like that,” Guiselle said.
IF YOU GO
Where: Zafira catamaran cruises depart from the boat ramp at the old marina in Flamingo.
Hours and rates: Morning cruises 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., $75 for adults, $50 for kids 6 to 11; sunset cruises 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., $85 for adults, $60 for kids 6 to 11.
What to bring: Swimsuit, sunscreen, towel, camera. Don’t worry about shoes; everyone goes barefoot on the boat.
For more info: http://www.zafirasailingcostarica.com