By Christina Spilsbury.
For a long time, the Nicoya Peninsula was an isolated outpost, better known to foreigners than to Costa Ricans from the Central Valley. Boats from many countries moored in our bay: yachts and sailboats, cargo ships, long-line fishing boats, shrimp boats, even submarines. People still talk about the huge wooden sailboats from Europe, Colombia, Guatemala and Peru that visited our shores in the years between the opening of the Panama Canal and World War I - La Guerra del Kaiser Aleman. The boats were too large to moor in the shallow bay, so they dropped anchor out beyond the island.
Isla del Capitan is the name of the island just north of the point, at the entrance to Tamarindo Bay. The small island glistens in the sun; light reflecting off the shards of conch shells covering the sand beach. Legend has it that a shipwrecked captain swam here from his ship. They say the Captain’s ghost stalks the island, so no one dares to spend the night there. Strangely, the haunted island became the place to get married a few years back.
Tamarindo was mostly uninhabited before the tourist boom. It was an anchorage, and a place to gather turtle eggs in season. Some locals were employed on boats in search of turtle shells, used to make all kinds of decorative items, including combs and jewelry. People sold merchants crushed shells for dying Guatemalan textiles. Sea cucumbers were harvested for the Chinese. And in summer, the receding estuaries exposed rich salt beds. Ranchers came from miles around to buy the salt for their cattle.
The Europeans ships came in search of precious woods, especially Brazil. The trunk of this beautiful tree resembles a wooden replica of an anatomical arm, a braid of arteries and veins twisting up into its canopy. But it was the heart of the tree that was valued for the red dye it produced. Carpenters cut the heart into wood chips, which were bagged and floated out to ships.
Cedar, cocobolo and pochote were felled in inland forests, then transported by oxen to the beach, stripped of their bark, and floated out to the ships. This was a long process involving months of labor, time enough for a Captain to fall in love, and for the beloved to become pregnant; long enough for the villagers to have accepted the crew as fixtures in their daily lives, and to know them perhaps as the fathers of a whole new generation, indispensable to the pueblo’s future. But if the Captain survived why does his ghost haunt the island?
There were many boats that passed through Tamarindo, and many Captains. Perhaps there were many shipwrecks, and a Captain that swam to safety on the island and lived, and one who swam to the island and died, and all of the stories of shipwrecks and their captains have melded together into one story, the story of the perils of the sea.
El Miedo. The fear. That was the name of the fishing cooperative that flourished here when we first came to town. In the days before luxury sportsfishing boats bobbed in the bay, fishermen headed off in small wooden pangas to troll the reef a few miles off shore, the friendly circle of boats so close together that it was possible to carry on a conversation with someone in a nearby boat. No radios. No fish finders. The men fished with handlines, their fishing line tied to the small flat square of wood with a handle carved for the grip. A bit of bait was hung on a three-pronged hook attached to a spoon and weights. Then the fisherman stood and whirled a length of the line like a lasso before casting it into the sea then hand over hand slowly hauled in the catch, winding the line back around the wooden paddle. The men only fished in fair weather, but sometimes a storm would rise up out of nowhere and catch them before they could make it home. The fear. Running home, the motor could fail and a strong current could quickly separate a small boat from the herd, pulling it out into the deep.
We live on Punta San Francisco, according to the maps, but everyone here calls this rocky point Barco Quebrada (Shipwreck). There’s a huge, corroded iron mast marooned on the point. Sometimes the sand buries it, and other times it lies exposed on the first rocks. Metal ribs and smaller oxidized pieces of the boat are buried in the tide pools on either side of the point. Many of the surrounding rock formations have been given names, like Sapo, a frog-shaped mass that’s a local surfbreak, or Tres Dientes, three teeth jutting out of the sea - a good place to gather lobster and conch. We’ve asked many people about the shipwreck, and though their versions of the event differ greatly, the first line of the story is always the same. “The anchor is in front of the Coopeguanacaste.”
Chilo Juarez was born here. On his 100th birthday he told us the story of the Barco Quebrada. The huge boat was docked near the farmhouse on Playa Langosta (Hacienda Pinilla), when a violent storm hit the coast. The anchors did not hold, and the ship dashed against the rocks as it moved north, losing cargo and pieces until it finally sank.
The whole town of Villarreal went to the beach to survey the damage and to scavenge for usable things like rope and dried meat and huge bags of flour. Chilo remembers that the flour near the center of the bags was still dry when they rescued the bags from the sea. The wet flour was laid outside to dry in the sun. The food from the Barco Quebrada fed Villarreal for many months.
I’d always thought that everyone mentioned the anchor because moving it had been such an arduous task. I’d imagined the anchor being dragged out of the water by oxen and men, the whole village standing around to witness the event. Then it would have been loaded onto an ox cart for the long journey to Santa Cruz. Chilo laughed at that idea: “No, no, they took it away in a truck...But they couldn’t take the other anchor, it’s still in a hole where there are lots of lobsters, but no one dares to dive there because the hole is full of sharks.”