“Tambor” means drum. Here in Costa Rica, it also the name of a very tranquil, family friendly beach. At least that’s what the internet searches say. What they don’t tell you is that it’s almost too quiet. My wife, daughter and I recently made Tambor our first family destination and although we relished the tranquility, we also found ourselves hoping for a bit more. Although the information I found on the net was accurate in some ways, the personal perspective of someone who had traveled there was absent like humor at a funeral. In this post I will paint a detailed picture of a trip to Tambor by public transportation, my words revealing the bright spots and dim corners of the beach of the drum.
We left in the evening, taking a cab through almost 6 P.M. San Jose to the Puntarenas bus station. The streets were congested as always at this hour; not only with vehicles but pedestrians as well- well dressed office workers with their access badges tucked into their shirt pockets, workers sans dress codes always carrying day-packs, a few over-thin drug addicts here and there itching for mental relief, mothers with children, people laughing, talking and wishing they were already home and always the rumble of trucks, a blaring of horns and occasional sonic assaults from radios. Driving through this, you have to keep the doors locked and keep bags away from windows- some people will smash a window to snatch a bag. I feel like a bodyguard whenever we drive through the city- concentrating on my surroundings, ready to react, even more so with my daughter present.
I especially feel that way at the Puntarenas bus station. Located in southern San Jose, it’s not the type of area for night-strolling. Heck, I wouldn’t even feel comfortable during the day. Upon arrival at the station, panhandlers are there to open your door and ask for money. This time I told one grimy fellow that I was going to open the door before he could do it. He backed off right away and ended up being so respectful that I gave him something anyways. Inside the bus station, at least there is an armed guard and things are pretty darn orderly by Latin American standards. Upon purchase of a ticket, you are given a plastic boarding pass then “sit” in line. Yes, you sit in line; not on the floor but in chairs lined up in three rows. Once there you can watch TV or your fellow passengers until boarding (every 40 minutes from 6 until 9 at night for Puntarenas). We ended up heading out into the tropical night on the 6:40 PM bus, trusting our driver to navigate the twists and turns of mountain roads on our way down to the old port city of Puntarenas.
Miranda was good all the way down to the hot lowlands. Good means she didn’t scream for an extended period of time and of course she didn’t because we gave her food when hungry and held her the whole time. A lot of people tell us to not pick her up too much or she will want that all the time, that we will spoil her. I think they are absolutely wrong. I tend to base my perceptions within an evolutionary framework; especially when it comes to basic survival instincts. Regarding baby-carrying, I ask myself what it might have been like for our ancestors in good old dangerous Africa. Did folks casually stroll the savannah with their babies in plastic carriages? What happened to babies that were put down somewhere and didn’t cry? Answers to those are an obvious, “No” and the understatement, “nothing good”. Babies were carried around at all times for the sake of survival. In short, since we evolved to be carried around as babies (and this behavior appears to predate the Homo sapiens species) then it’s probably a darn good idea to continue with this behavior.
After around 2 and a half hours, we arrived in Puntarenas. Puntarenas is located along a promontary that juts into the Pacific. Because of the narrow, stretched out nature of this place, when you think you have arrived, you still have 10 minutes to go before the bus stops. This turned out to be a boon for us because we got the chance to talk with some friendly Canadian surfers who had useful info. about hotels and ferry times. They let us walk with them to the “Hotel Cabezas”. Three blocks north and one east of the terminal, they charged $25 for clean, basic rooms and were very friendly (so much so I had to say it twice). After a short but pleasant night, we cabbed it pre-dawn to the first ferry of the day. Dozens of people were hanging out at the Musmanni bakery where ferry tickets were sold. Most of these people ended up waiting for the following departure because the first one had already filled up with vehicles. After buying $2 tickets, we walked aboard and chugged out into the Gulf of Nicoya at 5 AM sharp.
I was concerned about windy weather making for a rough trip, but thankfully those fears were unfounded. There were very few waves despite a constant breeze strong enough to keep the flags taut and make us wear jackets. Miranda slept on while some 20 year olds drank beer and attempted to sing and “yee-haw” Mexican songs that people always sing when they are drunk (except my father-in-law; he karaokes those ditties sober as a baby). The 20 year olds weren’t about to win American Idol but I’m glad they were having a good time. Sometimes it’s great to see people enjoying life even if they are rending the air and assaulting the ears in the process. We also met a professional clown named, “Jesus”. I know that sounds like dreams after too much guacamole but it is the plain and simple truth. He wasn’t in costume, in fact I took him to be a surfer until we conversed. He was doing a clown gig for the weekend in Montezuma. And he was sad. No, not one of those “sad clowns”; he was real-life sad. My wife even saw him cry; crying because Miranda reminded him of his estranged 3 year old daughter. Poor guy, we could tell that he truly loved kids. Luckily he didn’t jump overboard into the Gulf of Nicoya on the way over; we are sure of that because we saw him walking away from the ferry with colored hoops and other clown-like accessories.
The sad clown from behind.
Miranda sleeping away the ferry ride.
The Puntarenas ferry drops you off near Paquera. As soon as you arrive, you know you have escaped the city. Its not just for the absence of traffic and buildings nor the surrounding hills covered in green jungle. It’s also the guy on a horse clopping by, the vendors who don’t even bother in attempting to sell you dried plantain chips, the hot, lazy air. We didn’t have to laze around the port though because a bus met our ferry (does it meet each one?- I think so). We hopped on with surfers, backpackers and locals and rumbled inland towards Tambor.
Tambor was about 1 hour drive through pastures and patches of forest. First we passed by the other Tambor that everyone talks about; the more well known Tambor-the Barcelo Tambor. This major resort is replete with golf course and a giant chess board (according to my father-in-law). It’s also beyond our budget and even worse, they make you wear a bracelet during your stay. If I ever by chance stay there I am going to hide my bracelet to see what happens; maybe you will read about me kung-fu fighting with the security. After the bracelet Barcelo and nearby airfield (yes you can fly there if you don’t want to meet any clowns or drunken people on the ferry) we were dropped off in Tambor center. This doesn’t sound as obvious as it might read; just a cluster of houses along the highway and a road off to the left going by a church. Yep, that’s Tambor, that’s just about everything as far as the town goes. This is one of these places where you really have to watch for a sign (which they luckily have). Hopping off the bus into the hot tropical sun, we walked over to the Cabinas Christina. We had read a lot about this place; nice cheap rooms, good restaurant, etc. We sat down and had much needed coffees (now addicted, what do you want- I live in Costa Rica) and then had a strange time finding out about room rates and availability. The lady in charge was vague about whether or not such and such room was available and kept stressing a more expensive room with cable TV. Even after I said that the TV didn’t matter and that we weren’t going to watch it, she just kept on about that darn TV. Maybe it was because the town has so little to do? In any case, I finally saw the room with the cable TV and realized why she stressed this amenity so much. The cable TV was pretty much the only amenity that $35 box with a bed had to offer. Not only did we need two beds, but my wife was feeling especially non-plussed with the odd behavior of these people so while we waited for the bill, I walked back up the road to the Cabinas Bosque. Unlike the Christina people, the Bosque gang were straighforward with the room price, it was cheaper ($24 with fan), nicer and they had vacancy. I ran back to the Christina, paid our bill and walked over to the Bosque where we established ourselves nicely.
Although we lacked the famed cable TV in our room, the Bosque offers this amenity in their more expensive room along with air for double the price. The Bosque was a nice place overall with fair birding and Howler Monkeys that came through the grounds every afternoon. We got pretty close to them!
Tambor beach was a ten minute walk from the hotel. Very quiet and with a wide stretch of sand, the water also looked pretty shallow. If you are looking for a tranquil, lonely beach lacking the glitz of over-developed areas, this one might be for you!
For eats, we saw one sketchy-looking restaurant with an unshaven drunken fellow stumbling around inside and a beautiful, expensive one. Yep, just those two options along the beach itself unless you catch and eat your own fish in the lagoon (something I plan on doing next time). In town there wasn’t much to choose from either. There was the internet-hyped Christina restaurant- we ate lunch there our first day. Sandwiches were good but absolutely no-frills and overpriced. We were also non-plussed by their menu that conveniently left out the taxes. In Costa Rica most places (and possibly by law) post their prices with taxes included. This is important when taxes are 23%. Outside of town along the main highway was a Trattoria. This looked very good and was run by an authentic Italian family . It was pricey too but looked worth it (unlike the Christina). There was a friendly soda just across the street from and to the right of the entrance to Tambor center. This place has no sign but looks like a typical small soda. The woman who runs the place was very friendly and talkative. Some of her family entertained Miranda while we ate. For that alone I would recommend this place over any other in Tambor. The dinner plate was pretty good too; I had breaded Mahi-Mahi with rice and beans, etc. for about $5. Two blocks further down the highway towards Paquera is another restaurant at the Coral Hotel. Very nice restaurant/bar; our waiter was very friendly and helpful. The food and drink were also good and moderately priced. If you go to Tambor, don’t bother with the Christina- eat and drink at this place. There was also a supermarket in town that had most of everything (closed on Sundays).
Tambor beach was pretty quiet and you might get bored but at least more touristy Montezuma is only a 30 minute bus ride away. The few days we spent were worth it and I hope to go back albeit with my own transportation to explore other beaches in the area. If you take the ferry, whatever you do, don’t put your feet in the seats!