It had been 10 years since I last saw the seedy port of Puntarenas on Costa Rica's Pacific coast. In Spanish its name means point of sand, and that is precisely what it is, a long, narrow peninsula of sand, not even four city blocks wide, ocean to bay.
The single highway and an abandoned railroad track run directly up the spine of the point, each side lined with beach-front houses behind iron walls, small shops, bars and auto-repair yards all painted vivid blue or green, their walls occasionally covered with bright bougainvillea or half-hidden between palm trees.
I reached a dead end, the punta, the point, with its piers and docks, the termination of the land line.
There, resting quietly in the dark water at the side of one pier, was the M/V Temptress cruise line's ship Voyager, all 174 feet of it, about to cast off for a six-day eco-cruise down the southern portion of Costa Rica's Pacific coast, carrying only 58 passengers on the voyage of a lifetime.
The term "adventure eco-cruise" is a description of exactly what this Temptress cruise stands for and accomplishes during its passage to national parks, beaches and islands that normally would be very difficult, if not impossible, to reach from land or air.
It is a fitting purpose: National parks and wildlife refuge areas occupy more than 27 percent of the land of Costa Rica, and nowhere in Latin America is there a country trying so hard to deal with tourism and its impact upon the fragile jungle forests.
That fact is especially significant for the crew, who guide the passengers to shore aboard the Zodiac boats, through rotting jungle trails on foot or up crystal jungle rivers by kayak.
The last time I saw a sea kayak in Costa Rica was five years ago in Tamarindo, up the coast from Puntarenas, where I met four young Americans as serious about ecology as the guides for this cruise. The Americans had recently finished their Peace Corps assignment and were conducting a little preservation on their own time before returning home.
They were sea-kayaking the entire Costa Rican coastline from Nicaragua to Panama, stopping in countless villages to give free puppet shows to the children.
Entertainment with purpose
Not ordinary puppet shows, to be sure, for these featured talking baby turtles, and the purpose was to educate the children to stop the poaching and destruction of the turtle nests on the beaches.
A difficult task, for turtle eggs are considered a delicacy in the bars of San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, and turtles have been a major source of income and sustenance to the whole community in the past. The adults stood by quietly as the children sat watching. Then, amid laughter and shouts of excitement, the children rushed to the sand to participate in games, all somehow related to the turtle.
The eager young crew of the Temptress Voyager shared this sense of responsibility and dedication toward the environment, because for most of them, this stretch of Costa Rica was home. They were born and raised in villages along this coastline and still had family among some of those we saw as we put in where no other passenger ship could go.
Aboard this ship, the children of the passengers learned the importance of protecting the earth as they participated in classes and trips supervised by the crew.
That was the beauty of this cruise; there was more than great food, fascinating ports, exhausting recreation. There was a purpose to life on this ship.
But the food was great aboard the Voyager, the seafood was caught daily, and the empty beaches we tracked after "wet-landing" in the Zodiacs were more fascinating than any duty-free shop. In six days, we saw more than we could have in months of land travel.
It anchored off the Curu National Wildlife Refuge to offer an opportunity to visit a tropical forest. There was an evening's rest at Tortuga Island, where a beach party and cookout served as introduction to crew and passengers.
Then the ship moved on to Corcovado and Drake Bay near the southern port of Golfito. Later, during darkness, it made a passage to the waters off Manuel Antonio National Park and the one-time banana port of Quepos. The most intriguing port of call was Cano Island, soon to become a protected site closed to any intruders.
Each day, after breakfast, everyone deployed to undertake an activity. Perhaps it was going ashore to explore some jungle trail through one of the national parks, or perhaps it was simply spending a day relaxing on one of the incredible beaches of this tropical paradise.
Kayaking up a river
The day could have been spent rowing a sea-kayak up a clear, cold river deep into the jungle, where you'd expect to see Tarzan swing from a tree on the bank. Instead, you'd be startled by a Cristo Rey lizard, also known as the Jesus Christ lizard because of its apparent ability to walk on water.
Scuba and snorkeling? Of course. Deep-sea fishing? Naturally -- as well as lunch or dinner on the beach, volleyball, or water-skiing in some calm bay, the ship serving as a background as it rode at anchor nearby.
Because of all the activities and the limited number of participants, the passengers quickly became acquainted and soon were sharing table space in the dining room or elbow room at the lounge on the upper deck.
And because the crew members did more than one job on the ship or ashore, they also became well-known to everyone.
The Temptress Voyager is now cruising the Caribbean waters off Belize. A newer and slightly larger vessel, known as the Temptress Endeavor, has recently replaced the ship on which I sailed along Costa Rica's Pacific coast.
If you go...
San Jose, capital of Costa Rica, is in the central valley, almost equidistant from the Caribbean and the Pacific. LASCA, the Costa Rican flag carrier, flies from Miami to San Jose.
The port of Puntarenas is about a two-hour drive from the capital; Golfito on the Osa Peninsula is reached by air.
The M/V Temptress Endeavor schedules are divided between seven-day/six-night and four-day/three-night cruises, departing from Puntarenas or Golfito. The cruise line provides transfers from San Jose to the ship and back to the capital. The ship can accommodate about 100 passengers, all with outside cabins. Prices range from $600 to $2,500, depending on duration of cruise, single or double occupancy, and time of year. The Temptress line has another ship with a similar itinerary that is one night longer.
Be sure to bring a waterproof container for camera equipment, since the transit from ship to shore is sometimes a wet one. The dress for the cruise is informal, and passengers decide what activities they want to participate in, or simply stay aboard the ship to relax. The dry season runs from December to April.
For information, contact the Temptress North American office at 1600 N.W. LeJeune Road, Suite 301, Miami, Fla. 33126, (800) 336-8423, (305) 871-2663, or fax (305) 871-2657. The Costa Rican National Tourist Bureau can be reached at (800) 327-7033.
Pub Date: 10/13/96