There’s a “West Side Story” playing out on Costa Rica’s southeastern coast. On one side of the road, the gangs are known as white-faced and spider. On the other, the howler, or congo, gang rules.
This, of course, refers to the monkeys in the Caribbean Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge, and during this Tico Times visit, things seem rather peaceful on their turf. However, the howlers – the largest of the New World monkey species – are wont to disrupt the calm and are winning at least one battle: control over the sound waves. Their cries can be heard five kilometers away.
It was after these creatures and their penetrating roar that Dutch expat Daan Nelemans named his house rental business, Congo Bongo. He says as many as 30 congos roam through the trees of his property – he lives on their side of the road – and the creatures’ thunderous, throaty “bongo” can sound off at any time of day.
Nelemans points up and, lo and behold, a pack of four or five black furry guys is loitering above him in the treetops, hanging upside down, swinging from the branches and snacking on large cecropia leaves.
Indoors or out at Congo Bongo, you feel like you’re right in the belly of the jungle. Nelemans’ are not the only houses for rent in the southern part of the Limón province, but his offer some of the most privacy you’ll find just a stone’s throw from one of Costa Rica’s best Caribbean beaches, Manzanillo.
Though the weather on the Caribbean side of the country is known to be unpredictable, on fine days the clear blue sea sways ever so gently, as placid as a lake. It’s perfect for swimming, snorkeling, diving and dolphin-spotting, Nelemans says.
“People like to stay at the house in the morning, go to the beach and stay there for a couple of hours, come back to have some lunch, then go back to the beach and hang out,” the owner says. It’s a hard life, indeed.
It wasn’t only about hanging out when Nelemans arrived 11 years ago. At age 28, the Dutchman sold his flower shop in Amsterdam and traded the bustle of his country’s capital city for the rustic Costa Rican shore with its own set of noise – only of the natural, tropical sort. He arrived with a suitcase and a green 1968 Ruska Regina, a classic Dutch automobile that is still parked at Congo Bongo.
Nelemans found a nine-hectare plot for sale and went for it. “When I bought the property here, it was pure jungle,” he says. He went to work with a machete, clearing the dense vegetation that grew two meters high. He dug ditches for rainwater to run off and began to design a wonderland garden of tropical trees and flowers such as heliconia (think bird-of-paradise and the like).
“Things that are growing here in the garden I was selling for a lot of money there (in Amsterdam),” the former florist says.
The vegetation fills the air with sweet fragrances that must have been coveted by the likes of Coco Chanel.
Nelemans sold four of the original hectares he bought and invested the money in construction of homes. The government permits building in the wildlife refuge starting 200 meters from the high-tide mark, but with restrictions. For example, Nelemans’ structures are not allowed to be taller than two stories or nine meters high.
Nelemans designed five comfy wooden houses, which are largely open to the elements.
The fully equipped kitchens have no walls, and the bedrooms, complete with mosquito nets, pretty much have only screens – not glass windows – between guests and the humid forest of the refuge. Each house has a charming sitting area in front and a varying number of beds. It’s a natural hideaway and a fantastic place to crash after hiking along Manzanillo’s park trails or after that exhausting beach routine Nelemans describes.
Congo Bongo can house a total of 25 people. It’s now the tail end of low tourist season, but couples and families already are starting to fill up the place. But the property’s five hectares allow for the houses to be spaced far enough apart for visitors to enjoy their own private slice of jungle paradise.
Nelemans says guests come from all over the world, and recent Dutch media coverage sparked interest among some of his fellow country folk. Some of his regulars are a collection of residents from Costa Rica’s Pacific coast who can’t bear the rainy season there. (The Pacific’s rainy season is during the Caribbean’s dry season, though the Caribbean never completely dries out.)
Nightfall is approaching, and the house-hotel grounds remain quiet, except for nature’s colorful orchestra. By early evening, the air is punctuated by a loud metallic sound: dink frogs. The sky dims to black and, with little or no city glow, a full blanket of stars hovers over the refuge. It’s time for an evening walk to “town” – about 10 minutes away – which is basically a cluster of structures built up around the two-story restaurant Maxi’s, a mecca of local Caribbean cuisine that has long been an institution in the area. Red snapper, or pargo, is a treat, as are the coconut-infused rice and beans.
After bidding farewell, those flavors blend into a mental picture book for the senses of fond memories of Manzanillo. Back in the city, if you concentrate hard enough, you might still hear the roar of those furry tree dwellers over the din of car horns and sirens. They’re calling for you to come back.
Getting There, Rates, Info
From San José, head east on the highway to the Caribbean port city of Limón; from here, head south to Puerto Viejo and continue along the potholeridden road toward Manzanillo. Congo Bongo is before Manzanillo, on the left, about 12 km south of Puerto Viejo.
Rates start at $125 per night and $750 per week for two people. To see the selection of houses available, go to www.congo-bongo.com. For information and reservations, call 2759-9016 or e-mail email@example.com.