(10 January 2004 / San José – Playa Caldera-Mata de Limón – San José)
The first rule of traveling is patience, patience …
And, ay, how patiently I have waited for a train in this country!
I first came to Costa Rica in early 1992, traveling overland to Quito, Ecuador. I was almost broke, my knapsack had been stolen in Mexico, and it seems a million other things wrong. I hitched a ride with other foreigners to Puntarenas and spent a few days there.
I seriously thought of taking the train to San José.
But I chickened out.
All service, including the famous the Jungle Train (locally known as the Tren al Atlántico as it used to clack its way the Caribbean coast), were cancelled on 27 June 1995.
I wrote to INCOFER (Instituto Costarricense de Ferrocarriles), the national train company, in May 1997 to find out the status of trains. In its letter of 24 June 1997, it replied:
At this time, the Government of Costa Rica is undertaking the steps to bring back train service, administered by independent companies that wish to use the rail system and provide excellent service, better than that provided by INCOFER.
We believe that the end of 1997, it could be possible to begin rail operations in the Atlantic zone, specifically transporting bananas from the plantations to Moín harbor in Limón. On its part, in mid-1998 the train between San José and the Pacific sector, in Puerto Caldera, could function once again.
I returned to Costa Rica in July 1998. No, no train yet. If I hadn’t have spent a few extra weeks in Nicaragua, I could have caught a special train for some saint’s feast day.
My research online in June 2002 gave me news of the Pacific train resuming service. In July 2003, plans were announced by INCOFER to begin cargo and passenger service again of the Jungle Train – at least from Guápiles and Siquirres to Limón.
And so I have returned.
Thursday 8 January 2004 / ~10:45 a.m. – San José
Gosh bless it – I’m as happy as a pig in a poke – a kid in a candy shop — & who knows what else ….
So, I went down to the train station to find out about trains. I was referred to a travel office there. I spoke with a young man, Mauricio (he gave me his business card). I explained my mission & travels over the years.
He told me about the trip they offer to Playa Caldera-Mata de Limón on the Pacific coast. About 98% of people who take this excursion train to the beach are Costa Ricans – & what I love tremendously, is it makes short stops along the way to allow vendors to come aboard to sell, in order to create business along the way, give people a source of income. He’ll allow me to go at the Tico price ($11 US) instead of the foreigners’ price ($25 US), payable in colones or dollars.
But before deciding, I wanted to find out more about service reportedly starting in Limón. I spoke with señor Moreira, the manager of operations. He said, No, only from Siquirres to Limón & only with cruise ship companies. They are also doing banana cargo service in the area. (I jotted notes about which lines are operational from map while he was gone making photocopies of the stations between here and Playa Caldera.)
I came back to the cheap hotel near the Central Market at about 10:30 a.m. My room was ready. I got my things and settled in.
I asked the man at the desk about having to be at the train station at 5:30 a.m. He said there would be no problem. The man on duty at that time can help me hail a taxi. It’ll be safe.
So I guess I should go get the train ticket …
I feel a bit uneasy about having to take a train in only a few days – but it’ll be better to get it out of the way … & it leave me open for other possibilities of traveling here …
Just have to set that alarm for Saturday – have everything ready to go – figure out how much I’ll need, money-wise, to take with me for the trip (& stash the rest away safely) … Pack a picnic lunch …
I’ll go up to the station now & get that ticket. This will be the first time I ever take a tourist train – and only because the majority of passengers will be locals.
Saturday 10 January 2004
Am I nervous? Yes – I can’t get to sleep until after midnight, packing a day pack. I copy the list of train stations and the time schedule. Do I sleep? Do I dream?
And with the beeping of my alarm clock at 4:57 a.m., I am up and waiting for a taxi at 5:19 a.m.
Dawn is just beginning to lighten the eastern sky. A cool, humid breeze gusts.
Vendors are already dollying their goods through the twilight streets. Stalls are set up with rainbows of fruits. Nurses are going to work, people boarding buses, security guards going home after a night’s vigil. Clouds spot the mountain horizon.
I arrive at the station. The lobby is two-thirds full of families, nuns and a handful (fewer than a dozen) foreigners.
Mauricio, one of the company workers, greets everyone and tells the rules. He tells us the rails are being maintained, so we will be going a bit slow today.
And we begin boarding. On these tracks, behind the rumbling máquina (locomotive) are seven passenger cars: four blue wooden one, the first being an ultra-first class, and three silver cars. Bringing up the rear is a caboose.
Still taxis are depositing passengers at this depot. Those clouds are beginning to capture the magenta and peach of this morning’s sun.
Families pose for photos and hurry aboard to leave at six o’clock sharp. A blast of horn. Rush constant. Clang of engine bell, the horn, the horn, the horn and we roll off, out of the yard.
Two male pedestrians wave at us and yell “huevo duro, huevo duro,” hard-boiled egg, hard-boiled egg. Behind those track-side homes, a dog barks. Homeless people sleep in the grass, covered with cardboard to protect them from the chill and dew. A man steps out of his jeep to give us the thumbs up.
I am riding backwards, so it is hard to see what is happening outside. It is as I am seeing the train in space and time, of where it had been.
Young children sit on some parents’ laps. The rail company’s policy is that if can fit child on lap, rides for free. So, we must be, hmm, probably close to 400 total passengers on this ride to the Pacific coast.
We slow and stop – a car is blocking the tracks. And the whole human world also stops. A man shouts, “Buen viaje.” Then we creep slowly away.
People at the Mercado Mayoreo smile at our passage. Produce trucks are parked so close, too close to our tracks. In this new day’s light gleam mounds of lettuce, spinach, cabbage – carrots, yucca, beets – strands of onion and garlic … mounds of oranges, melon, mandarins – plantains, carambolas, piñas – blocks of dark sugar. A kid battles the traffic, arms full of white onions, the long green tops flowing.
And we are stuck again. The car hostess explains our situation and nervously prances with our delay. Finally we clear the market zone with an almost constant horn blast, swaying, rocking away.
The kids across the aisle wave out the window at everyone – but not all wave back. We approach Sabana Park. A man driving on the highway waves. We cross over our first highway bridge. Chinese bodega workers hoot and wave at us. We pass over another highway. A factory worker gives the thumbs up.
We pass the Zona Franca (Free Zone). The tracks are congested with trash. In front of homes built of scrap metal, an addict stabs and stabs his chest with a syringe.
A young Afro-Costa Rican family stands watching us pass by. Pa helps his son to wave to a toddler aboard this train. A woman hangs washed laundry. The River Torres rushes hundreds of feet below.
We chug into Heredia province. The houses here are richer, ranches are widely spaced. Sleek horses graze in a pasture.
We make a stop here to pick up some passengers. Mauricio, dressed as a country bumpkin, runs around yelling for his ma who boarded in San José. And as we leave Belén, Ma Ramírez is looking for Mauricio.
Families wave from their front patios. Dogs bark. A guard on a tile roof, yes, greets us – and those workers at a plant. And behind poorer homes on the same side of the tracks, two shirtless shoeless boys wave from their dirt yard.
We clack through San Rafael. A smiling officer leans out the police station window with a smile and greets us. A man in a field of onions looks up at our clatter before returning to his fumigation. We pass another former station stripped of its signs. Tilting warning signs are rusted and illegible.
We now cross a broad valley still hemmed by mountains. This landscape is carpeted with sown fields and feral fields, fields scattered with lava boulders and pastures.
CIRUELA – 800 meters a.s.l. – 23 K San José / 93 K Puntarenas
A couple, still in bedclothes, waves from their yard. The day is growing warmer with the higher sun and lower altitude. Beneath the ghostly waning moon, butterflies flurry along the tracks and into this car.
Near this unmarked station are cattle ranches and a country club, and large egg farms.
The Ramírez family again visits our car again. Their humor and drama continue.
It is 7:50 a.m. The moon has now almost faded away over the mountains. The land we traverse is now rougher, with massive and low-worn volcanic stones.
The land flows around us. On roads parallel to our tracks, people stop mid-passage to wave at us.
Here we stop to allow aboard vendors to sell traditional foods and fruits, to allow a musician to play.
I gaze out at the pockets of sugar cane and pockets of meadow. Zopilotes soar above the earth.
An older musician comes to our vagón. He sings, playing a guitar and blowing a harmonica. Everyone sings along. Some passengers whoop. There’s a call for another song and everyone (save I) sings along. Our visitor collects the tips, then provides us with a third canción.
Tree limbs, tree trunks are weighted down by ant nests. A paper wasp nest hangs from the limb of another. The árboles are small-leafed, sparse-leafed. And now there is only the song of wheels squealing upon rails as we twist through this rolling land.
A señora arrive with baskets of gallo de gallina. She serves me up a plate of range hen, with an egg, tortilla and a torta de papa (potato cake).
MANGOS – 408 meters altitude – 48 Km de San José
We roll past this small station that’s more like a country bus stop, only perhaps some three meters square. It has no seats. The windows are mere openings in the walls. A feasting sloth hangs by its tail from an electrical line.
Budding mango trees shade this depot. An overgrown garden of yucca, banana and bamboo surround the building. The trees are small-leafed, sparse-leafed trees have limbs that are heavy with ant mounds. A wasp nest hangs from one branch. The brush is woven by vines of blue morning glory, of lavender morning glory.
We pass by this forgotten station with the squeal of our wheels upon rail, the clunk, clack-clackety, clunk, clack-clackety of our train.
Branch-to-earth vines decorate the countryside. Zopilotes fly through the jungle-covered canyons. Squeal of wheel … The azure sky is spotted with clouds. Up on a low ridge, an anteater peers around a tree trunk, observing our passage.
Clunk—clack—clunk, clunk—clack—clunk. On the other side of this train snakes a snakes a river ravine. We sway into the cool of shade, out of the bright sun. We roll past a patio of three spurs where boxcars retire. We swing past isolated homes where dogs bark.
We waver into small towns, our train’s horn blowing. Yards are framed with crotons and bougainvillea. Families wave. A bare-bottomed boy waves in the door of his house.
Clack clack, clack clack, clack clack, clack clack. The smell of burning brush wafts through this car’s open windows. The constant horn blare greets the village of Orotina. The people there laugh in amazement, with delight at the sight of a train. Past the cemetery where a young couple is placing flowers on a grave. A shaggy poodle barks, his voice lost above the horn blare, the horn blare.
This station is blue and white like all the others. The sun glares off its sign.
The squeal, the hiss of brakes as we descend towards our destination. Trees are covered with thick thorns. Lizards run up the embankment. A broad river to our left rushes towards the ocean.
Clack clack clack, click click. Clack clack clack, click click.
The land stretches flat to the now-distant mountains, flat to the nearing sea. From houses of the rich, from homes of poor, people greet us aboard this train, the dogs bark. Fields and pastures green the scape.
Far below are acres of perfect rows of young melons towards which we wind, descending, winding. We clatter over a river in which children swim. And in this countryside, many more acres are being planted. Some farmhands stop wave to us.
We swoosh through a tunnel (283 meters long). When we emerge, I see hills of worn tan faces dappled with growth and miles of fallow fields. In the distance is a shipping yard full of container cars and vessels.
We ride long a now-mud swamp with tall roots. The estuary is low, exposing a wide expanse of sand.
And our party has arrived at about 10:47 a.m. Families gather their towels and picnic hampers, and head for the beach.
At about 3 p.m., I hear the locomotive horn. I run from town to where the train awaits our return.
Two women rush towards the train to sell the fruit and coconut drinks. With flavored ices, men on bicycle carts travel aside the cars. Sales are made through the windows. A woman selling Pan, fresco el pan arrives breathless.
All the passengers return, bronzed or burnt from their day at the beach. People pose on the vestibules for photos – Say, Whiskey!
3:19 p.m. – A long blast of horn
More folks settle in. More photos are taken.
3:23 p.m. – Two blasts of the horn
Adriana our attendant counts heads. Three passengers are missing. The strong mid-afternoon sun glints off the estuary waters. Elizabeth asks if she and her eldest daughter, Alejandra (16 years old) and two young sons (Orlando, 6 years old, and Daniel, 2 years old) could move up to the empty seat next to me. We make our introductions and settle in for the ride home.
3:28 p.m. – A wavering blast of that horn
The engine has been moved to the front of our chain of cars. The direction of the seats has been switched. I will be riding on the same side of the car as I came on – but this time I will be facing forward, into our journey.
3:30 p.m. – One last horn blast
And we roll off, clunking past tangled tree roots in the scarce swamp and those raíces left dry.
Daniel is cranky from too much sun, too much heat. He wants mama’s breast. Soon he falls asleep. And in a short while, her older will also be asleep ….
Egrets dapple a field of cattle. I smell the black-earth aroma of that tunnel. And now green and yellow tractors plow those miles of melons. The field hands toil under the hot sun. A boy and his dog lazily walk a dirt road. After the last rows of that melon finca, we rattle through a cut, steep rock walls surrounding us. We sway past a mango orchard and barking dogs.
Jungle and savannah, sugar cane campos drape this landscape. Children wave.
Poor homes, rich homes. Barking, waving.
Here we stop for ten minutes to buy mangos and mangas out our windows.
And then we are on our way, that river ravine to the west and jungle on the other side. Monkeys climb and leap from tree to tree.
The sun is passing beyond the western mountains. Those valleys pool with gold. Shadows fall longer. Clouds become brushed with magenta. The sun is a golden orb. The sky bathed in a spectrum.
We roll through this town. Some passengers are singing and clapping.
The sun has now disappeared. Shadows deepen. Cicada song swells. The west is still colored by the departed sun. The sea is now far, far off.
It becomes chillier with the dusk and ascent of altitude. The land, the plants are mere silhouettes against the pale indigo sky. Venus emerges, then more stars. As we clack and sway, tired children are rocked to sleep.
ATENAS – 38 Km to San José / 78 Km Puntarenas
The museum is now closed. Vendors come aboard.
Night is absolute. Now and again, in the distance, the golden net of some city’s lights spreads across the uneven land. But still the human world must stop for our passage. Folks wave, dogs bark.
CIRUELAS SAN RAFAEL
Toots of horns greet us. The shouts of adios.
A soccer game is underway in the field in front of the church.
Here, Elizabeth and her family debark, departing for home.
We are into the last stretch towards San José. Windows are closed against thrown stones. And we stop, and we go slow through gangland. Trash blocks the rails.
And we are now home. It is about 8:04 p.m.