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Nature Spotting on the High Seas

Destination: Playa Hermosa

The phone next to my bed rang loud and brassy, and I reached for it clumsily. "This is your 6:00 a.m. wakeup call," chirped the voice at the end of the line. "Thanks," I mumbled, reluctantly pulling the covers off and stumbling out of bed. I opened the room-darkening shades, revealing a bright blue, cloudless sky, yesterday's rains long forgotten.

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The early hour came courtesy of a sailboat tour, which Cesar and I were set to meet on the beach at 8 a.m. I was already cutting it close, since I had to prepare for the day, repack all of my bags, gobble down my breakfast, and check out in less than two hours. With so much to do, the morning moved quickly. Before I knew it, we were barefoot on the beach watching the Kuna Vela sailboat pulling into Playa Hermosa's sun-drenched cove.

As we stepped onto the boat, Yann, the Kuna Vela's captain, and Jonathan, its deckhand, welcomed us aboard. Jackouille, the captain's orange-fronted parakeet, was quick to welcome us as well, dancing on the dashboard and performing an aquatic show in his bathing bowl. Meanwhile, Jonathan set up cushions around the boat, each strategically placed for killer views and optimum sunbathing.

The sailboat cut through the water smoothly, and as Captain Yann maneuvered north to pick up additional guests, Cesar and I eagerly surveyed our surroundings. The day was bright and clear, ideal for photos and a bit of relaxation on the deck. We pulled into Papagayo's familiar Snake Cove, and waited for four additional sailors to come aboard.

Before long, I spotted a small loggerhead sea turtle. His neck and head stuck up out of the water as if curious to see what the day was like. Drifting in the waves just ten feet away, he barely acknowledged our presence as we motored by. Suddenly, my attention was torn from the floating turtle as someone excitedly yelled, "dolphin!"

Indeed, right next to our boat, a dolphin was swimming beneath the water. He stayed parallel to the vessel, matching our speed and course perfectly. We all scrambled for our cameras, determined to catch the dolphin's jumps on film. As if aware of our intentions, the dolphin stayed with us for several minutes, and others joined him, entertaining us with their leaps, dives, and playful antics.

After our dolphin friends left and we had settled back onto the cushioned deck, I thought about how determined Northern Guanacaste seemed to be to show me so many firsts. In just five days, I had already seen my first wild howler monkeys, a spiny- tailed iguana, coatimundis, and now, loggerhead sea turtles and dolphins frolicking in the Pacific Ocean. It didn't stop there, either, as less than fifteen minutes later, the captain pointed out a pair of whales off in the distance.

A mother whale and her calf had been spotted in Snake Bay and other nearby coves for the past month, so Captain Yann knew to look out for them. This morning, they were feeding at Monkey Head Island, an iconic island rock just off of Papagayo's southernmost point. I squinted my eyes, focusing on the tiny island in front of us, and gasped as the whales spouted water between dives. Unfortunately, they never came up to the surface completely, but I was satisfied to have been within a hundred feet of such amazing creatures.

After our exciting wildlife encounters, we headed to Playa Huevos for an hour of snorkeling. The yellow-sand beach was small and inviting, though I was completely disinterested in its land offerings. I hadn't been snorkeling in over fifteen years. As a little girl, I came face-to-face with a barracuda whose razor-sharp teeth convinced me that the ocean's depths were better left unexplored. Today, though, I was ready. As I ventured out slowly, I told myself that there was nothing to fear. Nervous but excited, I slipped my flippers on, pulled my snorkeling mask down, took a deep breath, and jumped into the perfectly cool water.

I drifted along the water's surface, the ocean bottom just six or eight feet below me. The sun shone on my back -- a sensation I would later remember with regret -- and marine life played below me, kicking up sand. Blue angelfish, striped tiger fish, and expandable puffer fish amused me, while the slightly alarming crocodile fish urged me to steer clear of their tiny teeth. My favorite sight of the day, a reddish tiger snake eel, fascinated me as his thin, snake-like body slithered along the ocean floor, warning others out of his way.

Satisfied with my aquatic bravery, I swam back to the ship and hauled myself aboard. We had forgotten to bring towels, so I dried in the sun, munching on gourmet snacks like pate, tortillas in a red pepper dip, and a fresh fruit plate. Once everyone else had finished snorkeling, Captain Yann served us a delicious lunch of two salads, sandwiches, and mushroom quiche. His famous rum punch, which I had read about, rounded out the filling, healthy lunch, and we started the trip back to our respective hotels.

We flew across the water as two of our fellow guests, so impressed with the day's events, made plans to come aboard again the following day. When we arrived at Playa Hermosa, Cesar and I said goodbye to our friendly captain, and Jonathan took us to the beach. Back at our hotel, we called a taxi to take us to Playa del Coco, a $15, 15-minute ride away.

The rains held off, and as we approached Coco Beach, we saw that it was much more urban than either the Gulf of Papagayo or Playa Hermosa. Large grocery stores, which we hadn't seen in days, advertised along the road, and the town's main approach was lined with construction equipment, home improvement centers, large restaurants, and even a strip mall. We followed the hotel's directions, which led us along the beach and up a small road that had been nearly washed out by heavy rains. We arrived at the doorstep of our B&B, sweaty and exhausted

Leigh, the B&B owner and our hostess, greeted us with a big smile and kind words. She ushered us in and showed us our rooms, before we all sat down to enjoy a long conversation. She told us about Playa del Coco, how she had come to the area, and about how much the beach town had changed in the last two years. Later, as if she had heard our stomachs rumble (which, in retrospect, was very possible), she offered to drive us around town, delivering us to the best pizza joint in Coco Beach.

Her dinner recommendation was spot on: the hole-in-the-wall restaurant/bar was owned by an Italian expat who had not forgotten how to make good pizza. Cesar ordered his with pepperoni, and I went crazy with three-cheese (fresh parmesan, mozzarella, and gorgonzola) topped with mushrooms. The tasty pizzas were filling and a good value, and after finishing, we waddled out of the door and onto the beach for our walk home.

Playas del Coco is home to a hard-packed sand beach, perfect for long walks. We strolled silently, watching dusk settle in, and enjoyed the crashing waves. It was a beautiful night, and as we turned east to head up the small hill to our bed and breakfast, tree frogs serenaded us with beautiful song. Back at the B&B, we said a quick goodnight, and fell fast asleep.

Nature Spotting on the High Seas in Pictures

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