This fine map of Costa Rica courtesy of www.freeworldmaps.net
The original can be found here: http://www.freeworldmaps.net/centralamerica/costarica/
Pt. 2 - Liberia
Getting Settled and the Rio Liberia
By the time the bus arrived I had already drank half of a giant bottle of water and was sweating. The fare was less than 20 dollars for both of us and the bus was less crowded, loading for departure quickly. After picking up a few more people at random stops in Puntarenas we were off through the mountains toward Liberia. I must have fallen asleep shortly after this and woke up almost an hour later. We were now well away from the coast and stopped for road construction. I immediately regretted drinking all the water. We were still two hours away from our stop and I had to piss like I just woke up after a night of drinking keg beer. This wasn’t helped by the fact I was crammed into a space that wasn’t quite my size. Luckily there were lots of crystal clear rivers running through forested gorges along with ridiculously attractive senoritas getting on and off the bus to keep me distracted. The most surprising part of the landscape was how brown everything was. All of the pictures I had seen of Costa Rica were of lush green forests nothing like the barely living foliage in this area. It was still beautiful but not what I had expected. I assumed this was due to the fact that it was the end of the dry season and wished I could see it in its full blooming glory. After what seemed like an eternity of having to pee and not smoking we arrived in Liberia.
We exited the bus and took shelter from the afternoon sun under a tree across the street from the bus station. Not even a quarter of the way into our smokes we were joined by a burly tattooed female backpacker seeking shade for the same reason. We learned that she was from Washington state, traveling alone and had stayed in Liberia before. She recommended the Hotel Guanacaste for lodging as it was clean, cheap and within walking distance. We thanked her for the tip and headed off to a nearby soda for lunch. I know you want to hear about fish and stuff but I'm really serious about my food so you’re going have to hear about another meal. At least I'm not describing any of the wild bowel movements I had afterwards. The Soda was very small but looked clean and was close to the bus terminal. There were only four tables, we sat at one and another was occupied by an ancient Tico man nursing a Coca Cola. Pat ordered a beans and rice dish with chicken and I got rice with lengua. Pat’s dish turned out to a colorful mix of vegetables, chicken and fried rice. Mine was large pieces of lengua on a bed of white rice with a tasty sauce. The waitress also brought out a container filled with onions and chiles pickled in a vinegar based liquid called Cahilero. It was excellent and made the meal.
After lunch we headed out on foot for the Hotel Guanacaste. After a little confusion we found it only to be told they were full. Hot and disappointed we set out into the city on foot lugging all of our gear. It was during this walk when I realized just how different Liberia was from Puntarenas. The people all looked very upbeat and walked with purpose unlike the sleepy citizens of Puntarenas. The streets were clean and though the buildings were all quite old, they were well maintained and all being used. Evening traffic was in full effect and shared the road with groups of men on beautifully groomed horses decked out in latino cowboy outfits.
After fifteen minutes of walking and feeling like I was getting nowhere closer to a room I sat down on a corner lot in the shade and lit a smoke. Pat gave me a look like what the hell are you doing and I explained I was going no further on foot and thought we should get a cab to take us to a hotel. Pat wanted to keep going on foot but grudgingly agreed to try my idea. A minute or two passed before a small truck that had been converted into a taxi came down the street toward us. I jumped up off of my bag and waved him down. As he neared I noticed he had another fare already but he still stopped alongside us and dropped his window. He rattled something off in machine gun paced Spanish pointed down the street, then back at his watch before giving me a thumbs up and peeling off. I was kind of confused but was pretty sure this guy was going to come back for me in the near future. Pat wasn’t as convinced and I had to assure him this was our man and that he would be back. Somewhere between five and ten minutes later I was feeling a little less confident about my decision and was considering moving on again when the red truck came racing up the street and honked its horn at us. Relieved I threw my stuff in the bed of the truck and got into the front seat of the cab. We soon found out that not only did this guy not speak very much English he spoke extremely fast no matter what language or combinations of languages he was speaking. This is not something you encounter very often in Costa Rica. Most of the people are extremely laid back and the speed of their speech reflects this. The fact they speak so slowly is extremely helpful if you aren’t very good at speaking Spanish. Lucky for us, though he spoke very fast he was determined for us to understand him and after a few minutes and the help of a calculator we were on our way to a cabina in our desired price range. On the way to the hotel he never stopped talking, keeping the same inhuman pace the entire time. He asked where we were from and we told him. Immediately after he starts saying something over and over about Venezuela so we assumed that this is where he was from and why he spoke so much faster than everyone else we encountered. He also told us that there was a fiesta going on in town and that was why the horses were there. When I say he said this what I really mean is he spoke crazy fast Spanish to us and this is what we got out of it. After a short ride we pulled up at our new lodging and were immediately greeted by the cabinas owner.
She was probably in her late forties or early fifties and didn’t seem to be quite the caliber of hardass that Señora Joyce was but still not to be messed with. She led us back to our room which was tucked back in the corner of the small hotel. The room was clean, cool, had WiFi, and was only 30 dollars a night
We were both very happy with our new digs and excited to explore this new and very different area. We didn’t have any data on it but the Rio Liberia ran right through town only a ten minute walk from our cabina. From what we could see on google maps, it wasn’t much of a river but we had to at least take a peek at it. We made the short walk to the river and were a little disappointed by what we saw. The water was clear, but very shallow and hardly moving. There was also trash in the river and near the bank, not just normal river litter but weird stuff like TV’s and microwaves. Despite all this we could see a fish or two swimming around and decided to give it a try. Having jettisoned all of our fresh bait back in Puntarenas all we had were sandworms and gulp to work with. By the time we were tied up and ready the light was fading fast and after a half-hour of fruitless fishing it was dark.
The streets were at capacity on our walk back to the room, the fiesta that the cab driver had talked about was turning out to be a town wide mandatory celebration. As we rounded a corner Pat was nearly flattened by a moped that barely flinched at the event. Later that evening when we went into the town center for food, we found the central park filled with vendors and local revelers. We made our way through the sea of fiesta goers and colorfully costumed dancers across the town center. A bandshell had been set up on the far end of the park from which a variety of ethnic music was played. The area directly in front of the bandshell was roped off and filled with costumed dancers performing some pretty impressive choreography. We eventually reached the other side of the park and found a quiet soda to grab dinner in. After a forgettable meal we headed down the street to the local grocery store to see what we could find for bait. I wasn’t able to score any shrimp this time and had to settle for canned smoked octopus in olive oil. I also bought a two pound bag of some kind of sweet cornmeal to use for chum or dough balls. Once we were good in the bait department we headed back to the room for some shut eye, hoping to get an early start in the morning.
Fishing the Rio Sapoa
We woke up early and had breakfast at the small restaurant attached to the cabina. Over a plate of beans and rice with a dollop of sour cream on top we figured out that all of the car rental places weren’t open until eight AM. We waited around the cabina until a quarter to eight then set off on foot towards the rental agency only a few blocks away. The morning was hot and sticky without any type of breeze and I was glad to see the sign for the rental agency as we rounded a corner. My happiness quickly faded when we realized that it was out of business and would have to take a cab to the airport where the other agencies were located. We caught a cab near the town center and after a twenty minute ride and thirty minutes of paperwork we were given the keys to a white mid-sized SUV. We returned to the cabina in Liberia to retrieve our fishing gear and my GPS. After loading the gear we got in the car and I tried to plug our destination into the GPS. I had just bought the unit before my trip and was struggling to make it do what I needed. Just when my anxiety levels were reaching the orange zone the GPS’s battery died and spiked them into the red. By this time we had pulled out into the street and were cruising through the busy streets of Liberia without a clue as to where we were supposed to go. My initial plan was to go to a market on the other side of the central park and get batteries. This proved to be a total shit show for a number of reasons. For one the narrow streets of Liberia were packed with traffic because of the fiesta, for another the streets were an unorganized jumble of unmarked one-way streets. This combined with the fact that I was already panicking about my GPS shitting the bed doomed the mission from the start. After going the wrong way down a one-way street more than once, quite a bit of honking, and a few other close calls we were back at the room. I retired to a shady area near the front of the hotel to chain smoke and download the owner’s manual for my GPS. After about ten minutes of me smoking, cursing garmin and waiting for the .pdf to download over the hotel’s crappy WiFi network, Pat showed up with some good news. He had figured out that he could download a google map offline, save it on his cell phone and use it to navigate. It wasn’t perfect but it was a lot better than a cantankerous GPS with dead batteries. I could have hugged Pat I was so relieved and thanked him for saving the day once again. This is the kind of stuff he is famous for and why I call him Uncle Pat.
With our spirits lifted and a slightly better eye for spotting what was a one way street we cruised out of Liberia without a hitch and got on Panamerican Hwy 1 heading north toward La Cruz. Our destination was just northwest of La Cruz at a bridge crossing on the Rio Sapoa. The Rio Sapoa flows north and after crossing the border with Nicaragua it drains into Lake Nicaragua. Despite being very close to the Pacific Ocean this river drains into the Atlantic.
About twenty minutes outside of Liberia we were delayed when we hit road construction. This is pretty common in Costa Rica and the delays were anywhere from a few minutes to 30 minutes. As soon as we stopped we were descended upon by roadside vendors selling everything from sodas to cell phone charges. We chain smoked on the side of the road for maybe 20 minutes and were on our way. As we cruised through the hilly countryside I was surprised by how different it was than the road from Puntarenas. This area was much flatter, mostly deforested, criss-crosed with canals, and dominated by farmland. The most popular crops seemed to be sugar cane and yucca. A good portion of land was also devoted to grassy cattle pastures dotted with small stands of trees.
After a little over an hour of driving and only missing one turn by a few minutes we arrived to find an all but dried up creek bed. Nervous but still hopeful we got out of the car and headed up the dry creek bed to see what we could find. Pretty soon we could hear running water and we came to a larger flowing section of stream. Right away we could see small tetras and cichlids frolicking about the margins and were sold. We hustled back to the car to retrieve our gear like two kids about to take the candy shop for all it has. It was brutally hot and getting hotter and I realized then that we were all but out of water. We saw what looked like a small store on the top of the hill overlooking the river and decided to try and go get some water before we got too carried away. We headed down the narrow gravel road that seemed to only be traveled by dump trucks a short distance before we figured out there was no road to the “store” on the top of the hill. I was just contemplating turning around when we came to a crystal clear river going right over the road. We both scrambled out of the car to inspect this picturesque jungle stream all thoughts of buying water completely lost. We could see right away that the gin clear water was teeming with life. Schools of tetras and cichlids cruised around the quiet pool like it was some kind of giant aquarium from one of my wet dreams. We grabbed our gear and attempted to remain calm while we tied up. After rigging I opened the can of octopus and dumped its juices into the green tupperware from puntarenas. I then added a couple cups of the maize powder to the juice along with a little water. My head reeling with thoughts of lifers as I mixed the stinky dough up and underhand lobbed a handful toward the far side of the pool. I immediately wished I had thought about that more and said “Sorry, hope it doesn’t scare them”. I finished the sentence about the same time the bait hit the water and the pool erupted in a piranha esq feeding frenzy. Pat laughed and said he thought it should be ok. We both baited up with tiny chunks of octopus and almost instantly caught the first of scores of tetras we would catch that day.
Banded Tetra (Astyanax aeneus)
The tetra seems to be in every freshwater body of water in Costa Rica. They are super abundant and super aggressive. If you don’t see any just throw something in the water and they will come to investigate. Despite this they were surprisingly difficult to hook, nipping at the bait rather than swallowing it, and they often were a nuisance when trying for other species.
Not ten minutes into our session, a pickup truck with a large boxy cab and flatbed surrounded by a black metal rack came driving across the shallow river from the opposite bank. It pulled up and stopped not five feet from us and turned off its engine. An older Tico man in 90’s era US battle fatigues, an unbuttoned shirt and a machete at his side came sauntering out of the truck toward the bank. From the flatbed came three teenage girls one of which was very very pregnant. Me and Pat hardly had time to exchange confused looks before they were right on top of us. The man immediately asked us something in Spanish that we didn’t understand. In the friendliest way possible we told him we were sorry but didn’t know much Spanish. I caught another tetra and felt a little dumb when I saw the strange looks they were giving me as I snapped a half dozen pics of what they called sardina and considered bait. The man asked if he could have the tetra and I gave it to him gladly. The ravenous tetras filled the pool and were easy to catch so me and Pat caught 6 or so for the man before he indicated that was plenty. He put the tetras in a cloth bundle along with what looked like chunks of squid and proceeded to sit down on the rock behind us to rig up his hand line.
I was just taking off my shoes so I could wade down the road to the small island when the pregnant girl came around the side of the truck and handed me and Pat a couple of oranges. I thanked her and the old man while I began to peel and eat it. This got us a both a weird look from the old man and some snickers from the girls. We weren’t sure why until the old man hacked the top off of his orange with his machete and squeezed the contents into his mouth. After he drank his orange he walked off downstream into the jungle in search of dinner. Refreshed after my mini lunch I waded down the gravel road to the small island that separated our little pool from the main channel of the river. I had a few tetras and some chum with me and had tied a little bit bigger hook on. I split one of the tetras into quarter sized pieces and casted one out where I had just thrown a handful of maze. Almost instantly I had a decent sized fish on that had a lot more attitude than anything else I had hooked that day. After a short tussle I had my first Machaca on the bank.
Machaca del Atlantico (Brycon costaricensis)
After taking some pics for me Pat switched out his rig and caught one too.
Machaca del Atlantico (Brycon costaricensis)
The girls indicated that they wanted to eat the Machaca’s so we let them have them as well.
We both caught a lot of fish that day including many new lifers. We caught a load of little cichlids that were highly variable, turns out they are all Honduran Redpoint Cichlids.
Honduran redpoint cichlid (Amatitlania siquia)
Honduran redpoint cichlid (Amatitlania siquia)
Honduran redpoint cichlid (Amatitlania siquia)
At one point I stumbled across a new species of cichlid that seemed to favor flowing water. We later identified this as the Poor man’s Tropheus. Pat quickly caught one as well once I showed him where they were.
Poor-man's Tropheus (Hypsophrys nematopus)
Pat also managed a Nicaragua cichlid but I couldn’t seem to find one.
Nicaragua Cichlid (Hypsophrys nicaraguensis)
At some point Pat started to chuck a small spinner and banked his lifer rainbow bass.
Guapote (Parachromis dovii)
I spent a lot of time casting around lures in the wider downstream section, with Rainbow Bass at the back of my mind. No Rainbow Bass for me this day but I caught many Machacas including this one which was the largest by far.
Machaca del Atlantico (Brycon costaricensis)
I lost my rattle trap soon after this picture was taken and moved back over to the pool to try for some of the other cichlids but had no luck. About this time the man came back out of the jungle with a stick he had fashioned into a stringer that held six to eight fat Machacas. He walked over into the shade near the pregnant girl and dropped them on the rocks and said quietly to himself “Pura vida”. This was maybe the coolest thing I have ever seen in my life and I doubt I will ever forget it. Even though I felt like a dumb American tourist, I couldn’t help but ask for a picture of the family with their catch.
Me and Pat continued to fish while the girls cleaned the Machacas and the old man talked to other locals who were passing through the area. They all were very intent on everything he had to say and treated him with a serious sense of respect. At one point a young ne’er-do-well on a bike rode up and lingered on the outside of the crowd. After a few minutes the old man yelled at him and he took off in the direction he came without hesitation. A short time later a guy on a perfectly groomed white horse and white cowboy outfit rode out of the jungle and stopped to chat with the old man. This guy was like the Mayor of the Rio Sapoa, a total badass. After they cleaned their fish and got through chatting they gave us a few more oranges and tried asking us something else we didn’t understand. They seemed a little frustrated and disappointed and left shortly after that. In retrospect we wondered if they were trying to invite us to dinner and were disappointed we didn’t know Spanish that well.
I was pretty tired and thirsty at this point and was burnt out on trying to catch uppity ass cichlids so I tied up a small bottom rig tipped with tetra and threw it in between two submerged boulders in the middle of the pool. Not five minutes later I received a violent whack and reeled in my lifer Bigmouth sleeper goby.
Bigmouth Sleeper Goby (Gobiomorus dormitor)
It was approaching evening and we still had an hour drive back to Liberia on some less than perfect roads, not to mention the odd border checkpoint, so we decided to not push our luck and head back. We were almost to Liberia by the time it got dark and made it back to the cabina without a hitch.
After the disappointing meal from the soda the night before we decided to try our luck with the street food at the fiesta. We had marinated pork grilled on skewers and the Costa Rican version of pupusas. Both were excellent, especially when compared to the meal we had the previous evening. Completely satisfied with our meal and day of fishing we went back to the Cabinas for some rest.
We didn’t have to return the car until 9:30 the next morning so we woke up early and headed out to try one more spot before we were limited to walking and public transportation again. This time we tried a little closer to Liberia on the Rio Tempisquito, unlike the Rio Sapoa this river flowed into the Pacific.
With the success of the previous day in mind we were super keen. We quickly caught some tetras and cast those out with bottom rigs while we dabbled around for cichldis and micros. All in all it was a pretty slow morning fishing wise and beyond the ubiquitous tetras we had to really work for our catches. Pat was the only one who managed a lifer with this Mosquitofish looking thing.
Knife livebearer (Alfaro cultratus)
The highlight of my morning was this nice sized and uniquely colored honduran redpoint cichlid.
Honduran redpoint cichlid (Amatitlania siquia)
The morning flew by and before we knew it, it was time to head back to Liberia.
After we returned the car and took a shuttle back to the cabina we packed up our gear while discussing how to get to our final destination, Los Chiles. Our options were limited and none of them seemed like much fun. Our first option was the easiest but also the least fun and involved us taking a bus five hours back to San Jose, spending the night, and then taking another five hour bus ride at five AM to Los Chiles. The second option was to try and take a bus from Liberia to Los Chiles which involved multiple bus switches and many hour-long waits. That’s if we could figure out what busses we were supposed to be on, which was no easy task if you didn’t speak Spanish. This wasn’t a route frequented by tourists so our chances of actually making it in a day were not as good as we liked. After much deliberation we decided that option two was just asking for trouble and we were going to have to head back to San Jose.
We asked the Señora to call back the taxi that had dropped us off and we brought our gear to the front of the Cabina. She sat with us in the shade of the front of the building making small talk the best she could with how poor our Spanish was.
Eventually she asked where we were going, we told her Los Chiles and that we were planning on taking the bus. She told us that it would take a long time by bus but that it would be “rapido” in a taxi. I asked if she thought the man who was picking us up would drive us to Los Chiles. She got a slightly worried look on her face but after a short pause slowly said “si….”. Pat wanted to know how much it would cost but the woman wasn’t sure. She showed us on a calculator that she guessed that it would be around 180 dollars. Pat said that was kind of steep but I told him I would pay for the cab and not to worry about it. At this point I was grossly under budget and had no problem paying the extra money if it meant squeezing an extra half day of fishing out of our trip. That was if this man would agree to drive us hours through the mountains and into the next province.
After almost twenty minutes the red truck pulled through the gates and our old pal jumped out of the cab eager to help us with our bags. He immediately started a conversation with the señora at his usual rapid fire pace. At first he didn’t seem so sure about taking us to Los Chiles but after a few minutes of talking to the señora he not only agreed but seemed excited to do it. We said our final thank you’s and goodbye’s to the señora before we hopped in the truck and headed on our way. Adios Liberia!!