The island, wedged into the shallow headwaters of the Nicoya Gulf, is becoming firmly planted on the rural tourism map, thanks to the initiative and drive of its very enterprising women. We picked up a covered ferry from Costa Pájaros (beyond Puntarenas), waiting on the early- morning beach alongside fishermen cleaning their nets, a few pelicans and a elderly matron surrounded, bizarrely, by a full suite of lounge and dining furniture.
She and her suite warranted their own launch, and off she set, enthroned on her plastic- covered sofa like some island queen heading for her kingdom. Perhaps she was a descendent of the Chorotega princess, Chira, who, according to legend, was with thif te island as a wedding gift from her lover, Nahaome. Landing at La Bocada “harbor” (not much more than beach, really) , the waiting coche- camión dropped us over the other side near Montero. The twice - a – day converted truck plies the islands 18.5 – mile (30 kilometer) dirt road on an hour- long lurch through farmland and tiny communities, squeezing passengers into its carvenous interior. We were welcomed effusively by Liliana, one of the founding members of the Chira Ladies Eco- tourism Association that runs the Albergue La Amistad, or Friendship Lodge.
Walking down the shady forest path to the lodge, she bubbled with enthusiam about her island and the project. “Tourism is new on the island”, she explained. “The community used to reject visitors but now they admire us and many people are approaching us to become part of the project. We have a lot of credibility with the village by behaving responsibly. For example, we always pay our account at the local store on time and they attend to us quickly, bringing our orders right to the lodge”.
The project in question started five years ago. Fishing harvests had slumped from over – exploitation and jobs were scarse, so several women got together to rethink their futures. Some became involved in a project to raise and harvest the piangua, or mangrove clams; others, Liliana among them, decided to build a tourist lodge.
Plank by plank, using off – cuts from a local sawmill, and with no support from their significant others who looked disapprovingly on the whole idea, four women started to put the albergue together. They managed to nail down the floor and the roof before the money ran out, but not their determination. The United Nations Small Donations program came to the rescue with funding for the walls, bathrooms, dining area and bicycles- the transport de rigueur around these parts. The result is a rather Quixotic but picturesque two- floor wooden house from which up to 20 guests are offered an original choice of tours.
Opening for business in 2000, Liliana smiles when she recalls the initial suspicion of the community, who warned that the visiting Gringos would steal their babies and carry them off in those big suspicious looking backpacks. The infant population has apparently survived, tourists are now welcomed and the early critics are resping the benefits of the ventures success. During our stay, the lodge was even receiving volunteer help from a Finnish hotel- administration student, and an artist and her daughter were getting community children to paint a mural by the cookhouse depicting their environment.
Liliana had a rich menu of activities lined up for us. Like a seasoned tour operator she outlined our itinerary: first a short hike up to the viewpoint above the lodge, lunch, then an afternoon collecting pianguas, or black clams, with Wilma, one of the mollusk farmers. The evening was to be a party dedicated to Mothers Day with food, music and games. The following morning would involve a boat trip to look at tha seabirds on Isla Paloma before the afternoon ferry back to the mainland.
Guided by two Amistad dogs, we duly sweated up the hill to admire the views over the Tempisque estuary, through the lush rainy- season growth prevented a truly panoramic vista. A delicious fish lunch, however, energized us for the bicycle ride down to the mangroves to meet Wilma. I was fascinated by how she could delve deep into the ooze for the mollusks without ruining her immaculately painted fingernails. Soon, though, her secret was out. We slid through the falling- tide mud in the creek to reach Wilmas boat, and as Liliana steered us towards the piangua farm, Wilma tied old knee-length socks over her arms and legs, donned a long- sleeved shirt against mosquitoes and lit up a dried cow party (yes, as in dung!) for insect repellent.
A couple of us couldn’t resist following her and, suitably attired (minus the cow patty), we lurched knee- deep in clinging mud, over and under the tangled red- mangrove roots as Wilma pointed out tha piangua holes. We learned that baby clams are seeded in holes near the roots, where they can be harvested after two years. This more intensive approach to clamming has meant that the farmers can collect up to 200 during a low- tide session instead of a dozen or so in the “wild”. Even in this crowded clam bed, we turistas alone would have starved. For Wilmas 50 clams, we managed to discover three in half an hour! Laden with gunk, if not with food, we returned to shore to sample a few of her expertly extracted, richly flavored, black clams raw from the shell.
That evening we met other fishing ladies. Looking dignified and elegant in their Mothers Day finery, it was hard to see these matriarchs struggling with lines, nets and weather in the depleted gulf fishing grounds in their efforts to provide for their children future. One proudly explained that her daughter was studying at a university in San José and we humbly admired the sacrifice that must involve. But this was no time for somber thoughts- sweet eggnog was to be sampled (politely, if not copiously), more fish to be enjoyed, then musical chairs and a piñata to be cracked open. The single young man present was given the honor of jiggling the piñata cord, making it dance away from the sticks attempts to make contact.
The next mornings boat ride to Isla Paloma involved Maguel- another male rarity – who motored us over to the nearby outcrop, its sparse shrubs laden with egrets, frigate birds and a few herons. Maguel was no birding expert, but he circled the rocks and pointed out several cotton–wool egret hatchlings before heading back past several fishing boats “manned” by women. The rest of the pianguas were served as a ceviche lunch. We chatted with the other Amistad managers, Dora and Isabel, before heading for the road to wait for the afternoon coche- camión that would take us to the ferry and back to the hustle and bustle of the mainland.