This is an especially early morning for the Schuman clan as we need to get to La Mansion Inn for a mysterious 7 am pickup. As luck would have it, we caught Charlie’s call yesterday – the phone started ringing as soon as we stepped foot in the room. We confirmed horseback riding with his friend Claudia, but he was told another couple is interested in coming along and he asks if they can bum a ride with us to Matapalo.
We have no idea what to expect but the relaxed air of Costa Rica has given us open minds and we are channeling “pura vida.” We sit and wait in the lobby until connecting with Darren and Nicole, a couple from LA, the same place Charlie originally hails from. Darren works in law (to be honest, at one point as the day wore on, Darren gave me a much more elegant description of the way his firm works and the exciting things they do for businesses, but I’m not sure I can recount what he told me without screwing it up), and Nicole is a nurse practitioner at a pediatric office. She knows español due to the patient population she works with, and has been surprising the locals most places with her ability keep up with the language. We instantly take a liking to one another and fill the car with chatter as we drive down to Matapalo for an 8 am rendezvous with Charlie.
Matapalo is a little Costa Rican town, more rural and removed from the noise and bustle of the Manuel Antonio/Quepos area. We see kids playing soccer outside a school as we pass over a narrow little bridge, and a man who has precariously piled his whole family on one bicycle. Charlie will later tell us that the population of this area has been unlucky enough to be touched by the ill effects of illegal drugs. It’s not a common problem in the country, but too many playboy tourists have left their mark here. Still, there are lots of smiles and positive people in the community. Matapalo is also not as blemished from the tourism industry and we hold our breath a little when we first see Playa Matapalo.
Charlie meets us at a little soda on a road parallel to the beach and walks us back to Claudia’s house where she and her family are getting horses ready for the morning. She has a quick conversation to determine which horses will suit which rider. Nicole gets Amigo, a very easy horse to ride but who has a bit of a wink in his eye and a propensity for trouble making. Rob gets Caiman, a feisty Tico pony with selective hearing. I ride Shakira, a sassy pony who is a little round in the middle from spending a few months at pasture from a false pregnancy, and who will prompt me to jokingly say during the morning ride – “Hey, I think mine is overheating.” Due to my poor memory, Darren rides a “horse with no name”. Claudia gives a tutorial about riding, instructing us how to comfortably sit in the saddle, not to rely heavily on grasping the horn, to hold the reins with a light touch, and how to motion the horse to turn to the right or left.
We set out to the playa (beach) and begin walking along the longest stretch of uninterrupted white sand I’ve ever laid eyes on, the tidal pools of still water are a rugged mirror reflecting cloud after cloud. I keep pace with Claudia, often leaving everyone else behind and when we wait for our friends to catch up, she lets me practice making circles with Shakira. She reminds us that horses sense intention, and our body language will help us while we ride. There are a handful of dogs running around the horses’ feet, with sabotage on their minds. Rob sidles up with Caiman and we begin asking Claudia about her story.
She tells us she has been in Costa Rica fifteen years, just five shy of Charlie. Her home country is (or was?) Switzerland. She originally was studying big cats and came to CR just for that reason, but somehow fell into working with horses and over time began her own stable. As we talk, the dogs spot little sand crabs along the length of the beach. Most manage to pop back into their holes right before being reached by canine teeth, but one unfortunate crab has become their play thing.
We stop to look at the wild knotted roots of the mangroves. Claudia warns us not to get too close as the other day, one of her horses was up to his belly in the soft, unstable sand. After taking the view in for a few minutes, we head back and the horses become sassier with the notion that they are closer to home. “No, Amigo. No!” echos out a few times as Nicole tries to keep him from extracurricular snacking along the path. Amigo is also the horse to greedily lap up all the coconut milk after Rob shimmies up a tree to get some with Claudia’s help. Mangroves have turned into palms, and fruit trees, including sweet lemon.
When the horses are free again to roam riderless, we walk through Claudia’s property. She explains that they built the house themselves. There are many different types of plants, including fruit trees, herbs and spices, and those with medicinal value. There is also a host of wild things and happenings right behind her house where some estuarine flow seeps in. A Caiman slithers in to grab a dead chicken thrown to the earth for predators like him. Basilisk lizards with strange crests tug at the other scraps in the yard. We see a variety of strange birds, including the Northern Jacana, pick through the tree roots for things to eat.
We meet Claudia’s gangly little girl Lisa when we sit down to eat guava and star fruit. Nicole is instantly popular when she pulls out a bag of Chips A-Hoy cookies and passes a couple of them to Lisa and her friend that is staying over. Claudia sends us up the street to visit with Charlie. Charlie’s house is a stone’s throw from the surf and seems to be populated with teenagers. We find out he has family ties with some, and provides mentoring for others.
We opt to forgo possible excursions to see more waterfalls, or eat at restaurants, all in favor of swimming in salty, sun-kissed waves. They are big here,but more manageable than the ones we encountered at Playa Manuel Antonio. Rob and Darren even spot manta rays riding the crest of the waves towards shore.
Before leaving to spend a full and fun evening with Darren and Nicole including a phenomenal dinner at Kapi Kapi, we promise Charlie we’ll be back the next day for a surf lesson on our final morning before heading to San Jose. The rest of the night is a mix and match of experiences, the quirkiest being our late night trip to the local “super-mercado” where Nicole hones in on this box of Choco (chocolate) Zucaritas. Mind you, just about other sugar cereal you can think of lines the shelves with the original names still in English. Choco Zucaritas however, features a buff Tony the Tiger on his knees in a muddy soccer field, dark skies overhead, in the pouring rain looking like he is channeling some mad emotion. These Tico’s take their frosted flakes seriously here, man! Nicole buys a little one-serving size, and Tony the Tiger soon becomes the Daihatsu mascot. “Tony is my co-pilot”…