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A stroke of luck in Costa Rica leads to a beautiful, quiet beach

Jack Severson
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service

March 5, 1996

PUERTO LIMON, Costa Rica _ When in search of a good beach, sometimes you just luck into one.

Of course, I suppose a person in my position should never admit that. No, someone who makes a living writing on the subject of travel should simply know where the good beaches are, right?

Well, I did know _ or thought I knew _ where a good beach was when my cruise ship tied up at the pier in this undistinguished, blue-collar port city in the Caribbean. The reason I thought I knew was that the guy on board who gave the informational lecture on what to expect at this port of call told all of us which was the best beach.

Portete, he said, was the place to go. ``Don't go to Playa Bonita, it was ruined by the earthquake in 1991. Portete is the place to go.''

So, armed with that information, my wife and I left the ship early in the morning for a stroll around this city of 70,000 before heading north the few miles to Portete beach.

In our meanderings, we happened upon the Maclean Cafe, a sidewalk cafe with a few umbrella tables and seating for about 16. Here's where the luck came in.

Behind the mini-counter was Hartley Maclean, transplanted Nova Scotian and proprietor of the eponymous establishment.

``Don't go to Portete,'' Maclean said after joining Elizabeth and me at our table. Over deliciously refreshing fruit drinks rich with mango and papaya (no wonder they call them ``refrescos''), we had told him of our intention to head to Portete for a few hours of beach time. ``Portete was wrecked by the earthquake. You want to go to Playa Bonita.''

``But,'' I objected, ``the port lecturer on the ship said just the opposite _ that Playa Bonita had been ruined and that Portete was fine.''

``He got it backward, believe me,'' Maclean said, then asked, ``How are you going to get there?''

``We thought by cab,'' I said.

``You have to make sure you get the right kind. Otherwise they'll try to rip you off,'' he said. ``I'll find you one.'' And with that he got up and went off into the streets of the still-awakening city in search of a conveyance.

After about 10 minutes he returned, spread his arms, palms up, and reported he couldn't find the ``right kind'' of cab. ``But you can go up to the corner,'' Maclean said, ``make a right and catch the bus to Moin,'' the container-freight port north of Puerto Limon, beyond Playa Bonita.

``Just tell the driver `Playa Bonita' when you get aboard and he'll signal when to get off.''

I told Maclean I didn't have any colons, the Costa Rican currency, but he told me to just give the bus driver $1 for the two of us (dollars are readily accepted in this country that has become an increasingly popular spot for retired American expatriates) and everything would be fine _ even though that was well more than the standard fare for the trip.

We thanked him for his advice, went up to the corner, and caught the next bus after a wait of only five minutes. The converted school bus was jammed, and the open windows did little to mitigate the sultry heat along the ``banana coast'' on this mid-November day. But after a ride of only about 15 or 20 minutes, the driver pulled to a stop and _ along with several other helpful passengers who heard us state our destination when we boarded _ announced that we had reached Playa Bonita.

The scene that greeted us as we alighted from the vehicle was perfect: An open-air restaurant nestled beneath a scattering of palms and deciduous trees, a crescent beach and the clear, aquamarine waters of the Caribbean beyond, and absolutely no one in sight.

This was definitely my kind of beach _ secluded, deserted (no playing hopscotch through wall-to-wall beach towels and oiled flesh) and plenty of shade from the trees and the restaurant's roof to provide respite from the strong Caribbean rays.

We walked into the Joy Restaurant and were greeted by Johnny Jones, who owns the place with his brother. The sun had crossed the proverbial yardarm, so we accepted his offer of seats at the bar and a couple of frosty bottles of Imperial, a popular Costa Rican beer.

Jones told us he had spent time working in ``the States,'' but had returned to become his brother's partner in the restaurant. He outlined plans for expansion of the modest restaurant and the construction of a small resort hotel on the sizeable chunk of beachfront land the brothers own.

Secretly, I greeted the news with a twinge of regret, preferring to see the place remain in its underdeveloped, if not pristine, state. On the other hand, I was only a visitor there and not trying to make a living from the place.

Elizabeth and I changed into our swimsuits in the restaurant's shower/changing rooms and headed across the sand. The water temperature was somewhere in the low 80s, warm enough so we could comfortably run right in like those hard-bodies in the commercials, yet cool enough to be refreshing with an air temperature in the mid-90s.

Once in, we knew we had made the right decision, eschewing the organized land tours offered by the ship ($30 to $70 each, thank you), instead seeking sun, sand, sea and suds (the aforementioned Imperials). While our shipmates were sweatily getting on and off buses at banana plantations and drifting through the humidity of jungle canals, we were cooling it, literally.

Playa Bonita (translation: beautiful beach _ and it is) is not a high-profile destination. It is ignored by most of the plethora of Costa Rica guide books (I found it mentioned once in the four books I examined) and seems known only to the locals and ex-pats.

During our stay of a few hours on this midweek day, we saw two couples from the ship (they hired a cab driver for a few hours to show them around), a pair of ship employees, and what appeared to be an ex-pat American couple (they drove up, took a swim and drove away before I could talk to them).

Lunch was shrimp cocktail _ an ample helping of fresh shrimp from local waters on a bed of lettuce and accompanied by sliced tomatoes and cucumbers that was more a large salad than the usual ``cocktail'' _ washed down with some more icy Imperial (necessary to avoid scurvy here in the tropics, I'm told!).

While we ate, Jones told us about a pleasant hike to another, even more secluded beach just up the coast. It began, he said, on the coral reef along the northern edge of Playa Bonita's crescent.

``That reef was underwater until the earthquake,'' Jones said. ``The earthquake raised the sea bottom seven feet,'' and extended the beach in front of the Joy Restaurant by several yards.

(When it hit on April 22, 1991, the quake registered 7.4 on the Richter scale and raised the coastline five feet at Puerto Limon, less to the south, more to the north. Evidence of the temblor's destructive power can still be seen in and around the city.)

We followed Jones' instructions, but it was slow and difficult walking over the coral, and we eventually turned back before reaching the smaller beach. When we got back to Playa Bonita, we had just enough time for a quick swim, a quick change of clothes, and to thank Jones for his friendly hospitality before scrambling up to the highway to flag a cab back to the ship in time for departure.

We made it back aboard with but a few minutes to spare and, thus, unfortunately did not have time to stop by the Maclean Cafe en route to thank the owner for pointing us toward Playa Bonita.

Hartley Maclean was the good luck we needed to find a very good beach.

(c) 1996, Knight-Ridder Newspapers.

Note: The above information is not to be used for any other purpose other than private study, research, criticism or review. Thank you.

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