HERRADURA BEACH - Sweat pours down my face and my biceps tense as I pull back on the pole and reel the line in quickly. "You can do it!" yells Captain Daniel from the deck above, but my arms grow tired and I lose my footing as the fish runs out with the line yet again. I've been playing this game for a good 10 minutes, knowing full well that the big guy at the other end weighs more than any fish I've ever caught. I want him on board now!
I use the stern railing as leverage as I yank the pole back and reel in the slack to keep the line taut. As the fish nears the boat, crew members scoop him up in a net and throw him at my feet. It's a yellowfin tuna, weighing a good 40 pounds.
"Call me Ishmael," I say to my friend Jeff Katz.
Don't get me wrong. I'm no Hemingwayesque hunter displaying my machismo in a Central American outpost. At 43, coming off knee surgery last winter after a ligament popped like a wishbone at Stowe, I simply want to play out my version of "Middle-Aged Man and the Sea." This is an opportunity to give my rehabilitated body a weeklong endurance test. My father-in-law had a textbook midlife crisis: ditched his family, married his secretary, and drove off in a Mercedes convertible. I happen to love his daughter and our kids too much to do something like that. And I'm an adrenaline junkie. All I want to do is shake off the rust (and a heavy layer of suburban malaise) with a dose of adventure.
I enlist Jeff, who leads a far too sedentary life socked away in a Boston office building trying to reach his law firm's quota of billable hours. We will spend a week traversing that outdoor lover's playground called Costa Rica. This little country bordered by Nicaragua and Panama, and by the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, includes terrain ranging from 4,800-foot peaks in the cool environs of a cloud forest to the sweltering humidity of a Pacific rain forest, ideal for people who want to sample a different sport each day.
"I finally feel my heart beating," says Jeff after splashing through a stream on his mountain bike. We're on a dirt road at the base of a perfectly cone-shaped volcano, not unlike Osorno in Chile and Mount Fuji in Japan. The night before, Jeff and I had enjoyed the best light show ever as we watched a river of red flow from the crater of Arenal, one of the most active volcanoes in the Western Hemisphere. Even as we woke in the morning, you could hear the hammering of the eruptions and see puffs of smoke from the smoldering lava.
We dodge potholes as we head up and down a rolling dirt road lined with orchids and tropical green birds. As we pass a small village where cows lounge in the shade of palm trees and kids scream out "Hola!" Lake Arenal, a 25-mile-long man-made body of water, comes into view. The waterfront is surprisingly undeveloped with massive fig trees lining the shore and jagged peaks of the cloud forest in the distance. For a break, we stop at a raging river and eat fresh sweet pineapple. As we near the end of a four-hour ride, pedaling past fields of papaya, we look up at a tall trumpet tree and see the unmistakable yellow beak of a toucan. Hopping along the branch, he looks exactly like Toucan Sam on the Froot Loops box.
That afternoon, still wearing our muddy clothes, we drive around the entirety of Lake Arenal and head into the mountains. An hour outside Monteverde, the gateway to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, we're forced to slow down by the condition of the road, a rocky, pothole-strewn obstacle course. But this gives us the opportunity to savor the countryside, a velvety green carpet with steep slopes dotted with sheep, cows, and horses. Upon our arrival at the hotel, we plop down 20 bucks each to take the reins and try our hands at being gauchos. We learn soon enough that even a mellow horseback ride in this fertile farmland can turn into a harrowing experience.
It starts off easily enough, through a small village and past pastures, rewarding us with views of the Pacific coast far below. The reddish-orange sun forms a ribbon of color as it takes its nightly dip into the sea. Just as we are getting comfortable, however, we descend a steep narrow trail that clings precariously to the hillside. We are looking straight down at the expanse of the cloud forest, and when my horse slips, all my petty worries about when my luggage will ever arrive (we are on Day 3) are overwhelmed by the more imminent concerns about survival.
"What is this, 'Fear Factor'?" says an incredulous Jeff, as his saddle keeps creeping closer to his horse's head. Thankfully, the well-trained horses navigate the rock-littered, root-studded trail, and deliver us to level ground intact.
Nonetheless, I feel safer the next day harnessed into a zipline high above the forest canopy. All over Costa Rica, you see billboards offering canopy tours, the country's Disneyesque version of an amusement park ride. Jeff and I attach ourselves to the zipline and cruise from platform to platform. It's an exhilarating ride, especially when we are socked into a cloud on an almost two-thirds-mile-long flight through the woods and can barely see anything around us, including the next platform. In rare moments when the clouds lift, we spot the lush ferns, moss-covered tree trunks, and the vines that dangle from the unruly ficus trees.
Led by a guide who tells us when to jump off each platform, I feel something is missing. My life is programmed enough as it is. I yearn for spontaneity on this journey, the unexpected thrill of fording a river on a bike under the shadow of an angry volcano, staring headfirst down a mountainous cliff atop an 8-year-old palomino, and yes, hooking a big tuna 25 miles out to sea.
My tuna and its pinkish red flesh is tasting mighty good doused in soy souce and a dab of wasabi. We had already reeled in four mahi-mahi and three tuna when Captain Daniel decided it was a perfect time for a snack. His crew filleted a fish as he motored farther out in search of one of those giants of saltwater fishing, a sailfish or marlin. This is what Captain Daniel and his legendary boat, the Spanish Fly, do best. Winner of the Los Sueños Signature Billfish Tournament in 2006, the Spanish Fly crew once caught and released a record 97 sailfish in six days of fishing.
"I'm lucky," says the humble capitán, "though I try hard every day, whether it's a tournament or bringing clientele out."
Judging from the Global Positioning System, now registering 31 miles out to sea, he will travel to great lengths to find the big boys. After passing pods of dolphins jumping over our wake in search of lunch, the sea now looks like a sheet of ice and is just as quiet.
Then the captain roars out a command and the crew goes into action, switching to the bigger reels and letting the web of fishing lines out. I spot a sailfish skimming the water's surface and, lo and behold, it has latched on to one of our hooks. I put on my belt, ready to be called into action, but just as quickly, the fish is gone. It's early in the season, mid-November, when the billfish are just returning to these waters. By January, this coast will be teeming with anglers and the big catch.
Hemingway's "Old Man" never did return home with his trophy fish and neither would I. There will be no marlin with his long jagged bill hanging above my bar. What my family and friends will find in its place is just good ole me, spirit restored and body intact for the long haul. Well, at least for the next 43 years. In the meantime, pass the wasabi.
Steve Jermanok, a freelance writer in Newton, can be reached at email@example.com.