By Christina Spilsbury.
No history of Tamarindo would be complete without recounting some of the stories – call them myths and legends – about the magical creatures that inhabit the countryside around our town. This verdant land is so alive – even things that seem static are alive and moving. Stop and watch, you’ll see that what appears to be static is actually an animal, a living moving being. It is not surprising that the observant residents of this natural wonderland have stories of amazing natural and supernatural things.
Parque Marino Las Baulas de Guanacaste protects the leatherback turtles that nest on the beautiful beach north of Tamarindo, the most important nesting site in the Pacific of these nearly extinct prehistoric survivors. They say that the turtles who are born on Playa Grande return to their native beach to lay eggs. They travel the world, but recognize their Playa Grande, some say by the smell, others by the magnetism emanating from the hills.
Playa Grande ends in a beautiful wooded headland. The point is riddled with caves, and small coves where pirates and Nazis hid from justice. This is the western-most point in Costa Rica - a landmark included on every map of the region. Maps agree on its prominence, but not its name. It is called Cerro Morro on some maps, Cerro Hermoso on others, and most foreigners call it Cabo Velas. Locally they call it El Encanto.
The Enchanted. They say the headland emanates a magnetism that guides the leatherback turtles to the nesting beach. They say the sailfish come closer to shore here, pulled by the same force. Periodically dancing lights hover over the headlands just after sunset. Some say that the lights indicate the return of the omnis or extra terrestrials who refuel here. Others say the lights mean that the duendes have returned.
The duendes are elves who create all kinds of mischief, breaking plates and furniture, messing things up while you are out of the house. The duendes are about 3 feet tall with long beards and bright clothes, are attracted to children, and lure them away from home with promises of sweets. Demetrio Ruiz grew up in Villareal and shared many stories of encounters with the supernatural, including duendes. Demetrio´s family spent the dry season in Playa Grande on the banks of the estuary where they made salt. One night he was sleeping on the palm roof of their summer rancho with the other children in his family. Next thing he knew, he and a group of children were being herded down the path by the child-sized duendes. Finally they arrived in a clearing in the woods where they danced all night. Demetrio doesn’t remember the walk home, but when he awoke the next morning, he was again on the rancho roof, tired after the night’s bacchanalia.
There is a famous jicaro tree on El Encanto. Jicaros are shrubby trees that produce large green gourds that are cut opened and dried to make bowls and cups, or filled with sand to make maracas, or carved guacalitos (decorative objects with flowers, symbols or coutry scenes carved into them). According to stories, the famous jicaro tree on El Encanto bore the most beautiful gourds – huge, round & jade green. Some said these pendulous gourds were the breasts of dead women condemned to haunt the place. The tree had a great attraction for many men, but if a man succumbed to this attraction and plucked the fruit from the tree, reality was instantly altered – time stood still, the ground began to shake, and the man became disoriented and lost consciousness. When he regained consciousness, the stricken man was far from the tree, back home, without the precious fruit.
Demetrio told us that his father worked for Robert Vesco on Cabo Velas in the 1970s. One day after work, he saw a beautiful, pure white deer grazing on the Cerro Moro. White tailed deer were once abundant in this area, and were hunted for meat and their skins were dried to make fine leather. Most of these deer were small in stature, with white tails, and rust and brown spots. A pure white deer of this size was a freak of nature and quite valuable. Demetrio’s father was determined to kill it. Though Demetrio’s father was a fine marksman, he couldn’t bring down the deer. The beautiful white animal continued to calmly graze while Demetrio’s father shot at him, again and again. In sheer frustration, Demetrio’s dad dismounted, and used the butt end of his gun to beat the deer. The deer just stared at him, unharmed and seemingly unfazed. The Ruiz family took this as a sign that they should stop hunting.
Many of the encounters with the supernatural are cautionary if not fatal. Demetrio whispered the story of the annual opportunity to make a pact with the devil. According to Demetrio, the matapalo tree blooms only once a year on St. Simon´s feast day. If you are willing to sell your soul for riches, you need to take a bath, and then lie naked under the matapalo. You call the devil, praising him and asking him to appear. And when the rare matapalo blossom falls, you need to grab it before it touches the ground. When the devil appears, you sign away your soul.
For many Costa Ricans, Semana Santa is a time for reflection and worship with family. During Holy Week, a Dry Law is in place, meaning that at midnight on Wednesday all bars close and no liquor is sold in stores until Sunday when Jesus is resurrected. Traditional families prepare all their meal in advance, and refrain from cooking or eating meat during the days of the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ. Thursday and Friday of Holy week are holidays, since work is traditionally forbidden. They say a tree will bleed if you cut it on Good Friday. They say that driving a car during Holy Week is a sin, and some small communities apparently still throw nails out into the street to deter anyone who would consider it. Many don’t swim in the ocean on Holy Thursday or Friday – if you do, you could turn into a fish. Easter is in the hottest season of the year and it is thought that the heat causes earthquakes. On the positive side, it is widely agreed upon that the best sunsets of the year happen during Holy Week.
It seems that supernatural beings haunt the roadways at night. Many of our friends have had scary encounters while returning home at night. There are the ghosts that linger outside the graveyard where they walk out in front of your car. And there are beautiful women who turn into monsters if you stop and look. Aristides told us that the best way to deal with a spirit is not to look at it. Evidently it is helpful to smoke a cigar, the spirit disappears into the smoke.
Back when nights in Tamarindo were dark and quiet, lots of people we know had stories of paranormal encounters. We heard about unexplained lights hovering just above the ground before they disappear. We saw a dark figure glide out of the estuary on the night of an earthquake. A friend saw a similar figure in the corner of her hotel room. We asked Demetrio if people still tell stories about the creatures that live in the forests, or if the development, the concrete covering the earth, the bright lights and disco music have driven the creatures away. Or is it because we no longer believe in their existence that the spirits have disappeared?