Bahamas Bound

Season 3 starts with our longest passage to date – Deltaville, Va at the bottom of the Rapahannock River to the Abacos Islands, Bahamas.

4.5 days/800nm.  Thankfully, we had the help of our friends Mike and Holly to make watches easier and days more entertaining.

Our planned route involved heading out the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay, hugging the coast until below Cape Hatteras and then making a left turn and heading about 100 miles offshore to cross the Gulf Stream.  You don’t want to linger in the Gulf Stream because it rushes north and if the wind opposes it you get big ugly seas.   Also, if you are heading south, as we were, you need to get out of it because it just keeps trying to push you back north.  So we got across in one piece and turned south for the Bahamas.

Eventually, the air and water warmed and we swapped the sweatshirts and long pants for shorts and T shirts.  The fish started biting and all was good.  We safely landed at Green Turtle Cay in the Abacos Islands of Bahamas completing our longest passage to date and immediately began enjoying the warm, clear water.   We were also greeted by Rob & Rose on R&R Kedger who had set sail from Moorehead, NC and with whom we kept in contact via SSB throughout our passage.  Big kudos to R&R for doing their passage doublehanded.

The locals in the Abacos are laid back and friendly and the pace is is deliberate and slow.  We are back on island time, and loving it.

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Cape Crusaders

Whew, what a ride. We wanted to make up for time lost in Fort Lauderdale and get to our old northern stomping grounds. So we screamed up the coast from South Florida to Orient NY in 3 weeks.   Along the way we dealt with some of the gnarliest capes that the US east coast has to offer.   Although we were really moving, we enjoyed our time in Charleston. However, it ended all too soon and we were then on a 200 mile jaunt up to Cape Lookout. Lookout is a special place with a big circular bay nearly bereft of development.

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Cape Lookout lighthouse

Pete kiting Cape Lookout

Pete kiting Cape Lookout

Pete kiting Cape Lookout cu

It’s a great place for kitesurfing (only wish we could have stayed longer).  We also were able to swim in the water again (a little creepy because of all the shark attacks in the area) and we and R&R Kedger trekked out to spy on the wild horses living on Shackleford Banks. Cape Lookout is a wild and beautiful place, and we hope to return someday.

Our first sighting of the wild horses off in the distance.

Our first sighting of the wild horses off in the distance.

horse #5

orange wildflowers

orange wildflowers

Mary spotting the horses

Mary spotting the horses.

they don't seem to mind if you don't get too close

They don’t seem to mind if you don’t get too close.

Pete and Lucy scout for horses

Pete and Lucy scout for horses

wild ponies sauntering across the dunes

wild ponies sauntering across the dunes

But we had a schedule to keep so we shot over to nearby Beaufort for one night to fuel up and hit the road the next morning.   From what little we saw of Beaufort, we liked it. It’s a cute little old town making a living like so many places off the tourist dollar. It has a lot going for it with its preserved houses and beautiful nature just out the door.

Beaufort, that's bow-fort

Beaufort, that’s bow-fort

They know how to grow a delicious shrimp in the Carolinas.

They know how to grow a delicious shrimp in the Carolinas.

We had a decent weather window and would not have a good one again for a while. So we were presented with the choice of staying in Beaufort/Lookout for about a week to wait for the next window or moving out. With NY calling, we headed out into some of the worst seas we have ever been in. Lucky for us it was just the ocean swell built up from a week of 20 knot winds meeting the outgoing tide from Beaufort. It made for steep 10 footers which had Neko pointing at the sky and next at the deep. But once we got about 5 miles out the waves smoothed out a bit and we were able to turn to take them on the quarter. Life got better.

This leg would have us round notorious Cape Hatteras, the graveyard of ships. This is a treacherous cape that sees low pressure systems spinning off the coast as if being hurled out by the weather gods. They meet up with the Gulf Stream, which passes very close to Cape Hatteras, and often combine to create treacherous seas and nasty squalls. It’s not a place to trifle with.   Lucky for us we had a good weather window and saw only brief periods of high winds and the lightning fireworks show stayed mainly inshore. And are we glad it did – at the point of the cape there were continuous lightning strikes onshore that were so visible and lasted so long it seemed like a colossal Frankenstein experiment.

Hatteras lightening show

Hatteras lightning show

Breathing a sigh of relief as we left Hatteras behind, we set our sights on our next cape – Cape May in good old Joisey (leaving aside Cape Henry and Cape Charles, which we just passed in the night).  Pulling into Cape May after 3 days at sea was such a relief.

Cape May New Jersey

Cape May New Jersey

Fishing Boats Cape May

Fishing Boats Cape May

It was interesting to hear the accents on the VHF change from the slow southern drawl of South Carolina to the tighter drawl of North Carolina and Virginia to the oddly specific accent of those hailing from the Philly-Delaware-South Jersey axis. It is a sound I am very familiar with and knew we were back in home waters.

However, it was just a quick stop. We headed out the next day for the 200 mile trip around Montauk Point (well, they could have called it a cape) and on into Orient Harbor for our long awaited arrival back in Orient.

Happy to see the  familiar Montauk lighthouse signaling us home.

Happy to see the familiar Montauk lighthouse signaling us home.

Catching blue fish left and right.

Catching blue fish left and right.

Oh how sweet to again drop anchor in these familiar waters. The last time we did so was on Quint years ago but nothing ever changes in this place and it looks exactly the same. We don’t have a home any more, but this place feels as much like one as anywhere.

Orient's Bug Light

Orient’s Bug Light

OYC sailing lessons

OYC sailing lessons

Anchored in front of our little Yacht Club

We anchored in front of our little yacht club

Our old Island Packet

Our old Island Packet “Quint” moored in Orient Harbor in 2007.

Mexico Part Dos

We returned to Mexico, this time to the Caribbean side for a quick stop to see our dear friend Randy at his beautiful casa in Tulum.

Randy's casa es Lucy's casa

Randy’s casa es Lucy’s casa

You know Randy has had a few too many if he isn't checking out the bikini babe on the beach.

You know Randy has had a few if he isn’t checking out the bikini babe on the beach.

Randy, Mary ,Pete in TulumTulum is on the Yucatan Peninsula along a stretch of ocean they call the “Mayan Riviera.”  It’s essentially miles and miles of all-inclusive beach resorts behind huge gated walls, kind of bland and unnatural.  Tulum is the hipsters’ answer to the Riviera Maya.  If Cancun’s frat boy-filled non-stop party or the Riviera Maya’s all inclusive mega-resorts aren’t your thing (and you know they aren’t ours) then head to Tulum for a yoga retreat, eco-chic chill out.  Even the  Mayan ruins there (the only one built on the coast) are low key and easy to navigate in a few hours, then you can cool off in one of Tulum’s many cenotes (freshwater sinkholes).

Time for a quick morning of kiting for Pete

Time for a quick morning of kiting for Pete

We also ducked into El Cid marina in Puerto Morelos for a safe haven for Neko while we did some land travel (more on that in the next post).  When we pulled into our slip I looked over and to my delight saw one of our sister ships, “Beach House”.   You have to realize there were only 13 (Neko is #12) Switch 51’s made and I’ve never seen another.  Pete is active online in the Switch owners’ group and they all “know” one another in the virtual world, so it was a kick to meet Scott and Nikki in person and check out each others’ boats.

Scott and Nikki for our sister ship "Beach House"

Scott and Nikki from our sister ship “Beach House”

Lovely beaches of Puerto Morelos, Mexico

Lovely beaches of Puerto Morelos, Mexico

Lucy enjoying digging in the sand.

Who me?  No, I wasn’t digging.

Happy to be back in the land of delicious Mexican food

Happy to be back in the land of delicious Mexican food

We headed over to Isla Mujeres to wait for our weather window and to enjoy a few last days in Mexico. Like Cabo on the Pacific side, Isla Mujeres was a bit too touristy, but the folks were friendly and for our fellow boaters the anchorage is well protected – apart from the wakes from the giant over-packed party excursion boats.  And clearing out of the country was a breeze.

Room for more

Room for more

Then after a year and a half it was time for us to head to the strangest land of all…Florida. With the help of  the Gulf Stream giving us an extra 2+ knots push we sailed along at times up to 10-12 knots, making the trip in a speedy 48 hours .  We would have loved to stay in Key West a bit longer, but only had time for a delicious fish dinner and trip to the Hemingway house before a cold front and cruise ship invasion made us zip out and up to Fort Lauderdale and a marina tie up.

polydactyl cats at the Hemingway House

polydactyl cats at the Hemingway House

Beautiful Key West

Beautiful Key West

Pete Hemingway House

Pete Hemingway House

Cruise ship

Our signal to depart

Funny, we left San Francisco under the Golden Gate Bridge and returned to the U.S. under another bridge, this time they had to open up for us to fit under.

Safely through the 17th Street Bridge.  The first of 5 bridges to get to our new home base in Fort Lauderdale for the next month.

Safely through the 17th Street Bridge. The first of 5 bridges to get to our new home base in Fort Lauderdale for the next month.

We left the U.S. under the Golden Gate Bridge and returned 1.5 years later through another.

We left the U.S. under the Golden Gate Bridge and returned 1.5 years later through another.

So after some boat repairs here in boat heaven, a.k.a Fort Lauderdale, visits with family and friends, and trips to Target we will move on to the Bahamas and then, who knows?

The Scoop on the Dups

The San Blas archipelago is one of the top cruising destinations in the Caribbean.  Lying only 70 miles east of the entrance to the Panama Canal, these 300+ islands range in size from a spit of sand with 1 perfectly arching palm tree seen by many only in beer ads to village islands with dwellings packing ever inch.

Cue the Corona commercial

Cue the Corona commercial

Of the 300+ islands, only 30 or so are inhabited, Nargana is one of them.

But mainly you see uninhabited islands surrounded by the clear Caribbean sea.   They lie off the Panama mainland which is mostly undeveloped.

Guarladup in Coco Bandero Cays is not

Guarladup in Coco Bandero Cays is not

Waisaladup

Waisaladup

Kanlildup (Green Island)

Kanlildup (Green Island)

Travel, other than by boat, into Guna Yala is an arduous dirt road jeep trip + water taxi or by small plane.

Yes, that is Neko anchored at the end of the runway

How is that for airport parking? Neko anchored at the end of the runway.

The Gunas are the indigenous folks who live in the islands and are proud of their traditional way of life and, though technically Panamanian, they have managed to live autonomously and preserve much of their culture.

Hard to see but this Guna lady is standing in her boat talking on her cell phone.  I didn't say they were Amish, a gal has gotta keep in touch.

Hard to see but this Guna lady is standing in her boat talking on her cell phone. Hey, I didn’t say they were Amish, a gal has gotta keep in touch.   Many times Guna will come by your boat asking you to charge their phones as most islands have no electricity.

The Gunas are the primary residents of these islands and have their own language and refer to the area as Guna Yala (Panamanians call it the San Blas).  Charts of the area label the islands with a bunch of hard-to-pronounce letters each ending in “dup” (pronounced doop), the Guna word for island.  Doesn’t “Ogoppiriadup” just roll off the tongue?

Guna sail or paddle their cayucos all around these islands.

Guna sail or paddle their cayucos all around these islands.

However, having once been a part of Colombia and now Panama, Spanish words pepper the area as well.  And now that the Americans, Europeans and gringos in all shapes and forms have discovered this cruiser’s paradise, they have added names of their own.   So the anchorages around Banedup, Quinquindup, Kalugirdup, Miriadup, Tiadup are referenced by clear-water loving cruisers as the ” the swimming pool” “the hot tub” and “the changing room”.

You can see why they call it the swimming pool.  Mike and Dave night swimming

You can see why they call it the swimming pool. Mike and Dave night swimming.  And if you look to the left of Mike you can see our anchor chain…now that is some clear water!

Neko & Apsaras anchored in the changing room. (thanks for the photo Rob)

Neko & Apsaras anchored in the changing room. (thanks for the photo Rob)

In addition, there is a Dog Island, a Green Island and BBQ Island.

Snorkel gang on dog island

Snorkel gang on Dog Island

Dog Island

snorkeling on a wrecked ship

snorkeling on a wrecked ship

Peter exploring the wreck

Peter exploring the wreck

Appropriately Lucy went to Perro Island

Appropriately Lucy went to Isla Perro too

The Gunas are small-statured people, with large skills in fishing and mola making.  Molas are multilayered panels of cloth cut away to achieve intricate patterns of abstract shapes or animals. Aappliqué is also used and carefully hand stitched to create the panels.

Guna women in traditional dress.  Note mola panels on the front of their shirts.   And wini beads around their legs

Guna women in traditional dress.  I got this photo online to illustrate the mola panels on the front of their shirts. And intricate wini bead design around their legs.

The molas are used as a front and back panel of women’s blouses, but the craft has become their signature and the panels are seen now by many as folk art.   While fishing, lobstering and crabbing are traditionally done by the Guna men, mola making is “women’s work”.  However, the two master, and best known, mola makers are transgender men (completely normal and accepted by the Guna), the famous and talented Lisa and Venancio.

Lisa, master mola maker comes by for a visit.

Lisa, master mola maker comes by for a visit.

Buying molas from Venancio

Buying molas from Venancio

We dined several times on local lobster and giant red crabs sold to us by enterprising Guna fisherman working from their dugout canoes. We had the pleasure of our friends Mike and Holly joining us on Neko for a few weeks of sailing these beautiful islands. Fellow boat pals Rob & Rose on “R&R Kedger”, Dave & Melissa on “Apsaras”, Dave & Margaret on “Heart and Soul” and special guest stars Roger & Susan on “Second Wind” made up our fun loving “lobster” fleet.  By the way readers, the SS Neko is now open for visitors, so let us know if you want to spend some time with us.

Peter, Mike and Dave aka the lobster executioners.

Peter, Mike and Dave aka the lobster executioners.

Mary and Holly ready to steam these babies.

Mary and Holly ready to steam these babies.

Lobster Fest 2014

Lobster Fest 2014

Red Crabs

Next up, giant red crabs for dinner. This time kindly fishermen did the dirty work of cleaning them.

Thanks to R&R, Apsaras and Second Wind for sharing photos.  Click on photos to enlarge.

Neko Rock

You didn’t think I would leave that cliff-hanger of a post out there for too long, did you? So we found the island with the little submarine on it.  Isla San Telmo is a gorgeous uninhabited islet which has been taken over by pelicans, thousands of them.

Pelicans at San Telmo

Pelicans at San Telmo

Pelican nesting sanctuary

Pelican nesting sanctuary

San Telmo is one of 200 islands within the Islas Las Perlas archipelago, about 40 miles from Panama City.  San Telmo beach

Tarzan needs to lay off the carbs

Tarzan needs to lay off the carbs

frangipani flower

frangipani flower

Most of the islands are uninhabited and a few have served as location for the reality show Survivor.  las perlasWe anchored in uneven ground about a 1/4 mile offshore from the little sub. The ancient artifact is about 20 feet long and made of steel that looks like it was 2 inches thick originally.

150 year old pearl diving submarine

150 year old pearl diving submarine

Its amazing to me that its still there more or less intact after nearly a century and a half of being covered and uncovered by the tides as it sits in its final resting spot up on the sandy beach. I like to imagine what it was like when the thing was originally deployed around the time when the French were just starting to dig their proposed sea-level canal (read the fascinating The Path Between the Seas), most ships still used sails to get around and Panama was a remote outpost of Colombia. How futuristic it must have seemed for this underwater contraption to set out on its pearl-hunting mission. The Las Perlas (the pearls) are so named because they were abundant in those natural jewels – so much so that someone built one of the first submarines just to exploit them. What caused the poor crew to ascend too quickly and get decompression sickness? How did it all go wrong? Who knows. All that we have to go on is the rusting steel hulk and our imagination.

Pearl diving sub

Pearl diving sub

The charts of this area are terrible – generally based on surveys conducted decades, or even a century, ago and containing very little detail. Areas like these see little commercial shipping, so little official cartographic attention is devoted to them. In addition to two different sets of charts, we rely on guidebooks written by people who have independently surveyed the area and prepared their own charts for certain locations. All the charts we had for this area, when they had any detail at all, showed us in waters with a minimum depth of about 20 feet at low tide and that is about what we saw. However, when we upped anchor to leave and were slowly motoring out of the anchorage, the boat suddenly lurched to the right and we slowed to a stop with horrible crunching sounds. These are such unnatural motions and sounds for a boat that it causes instantaneous confusion and panic. It took several seconds for me to compute what had happened and get the boat into deeper water. We had hit an uncharted rock pinnacle! We were moving at about 4 knots when the water went instantaneously from 30 feet deep to about 4 feet. It was not shallow water because once we ground horribly over the thing we were back in 30 feet of water. We frantically lifted floorboards and opened hatches to inspect for water intrusion but thankfully the boat was dry. Out in these remote islands there is no assistance for miles around so we were on our own as to what to do about it.

We slowly puttered to our next anchorage to gather our wits and plan next steps. Wouldn’t you know it, but just then the skies opened and deluged us with one of Panama’s patented rainstorms. Being out in one of these you actually feel the weight of so much water coming down. The rain makes visibility so bad that you can’t see even the front of the boat, let alone land or anything else out in the water (including the many logs and trees that float out of the rivers and estuaries and must be dodged). We were left to rely on our instruments, which had just tragically let us down, to get to our anchorage. We slowed to a crawl and with frazzled nerves finally got the anchor down in a safe spot. I dove to inspect the damage. One of our daggerboards (large foil-shaped boards that we raise and lower to act as keels) and skegs (a small keel-like appendage forward of the propeller) were damaged in the  impact. And our rudder, the last thing to hit the rock as we slid by, had its bottom corner chipped open. We have saildrives for propulsion. These are like outboard motor legs that stick straight down through the bottom of the boat just in front of the rudders and have a propeller on the end. Miraculously the rock passed just under the propeller and saildrive leg. Even though they are only barely higher than the rudder, they were unscathed. The rock must have passed only an inch or so below them. If they had hit the rock, it is likely the drive would have shifted on its mounting and let water into the engine compartment. Our boat is broken into water tight segments and since it is built of foam-cored fiberglass with no lead keel, it is very difficult to sink. So this would have flooded the engine room but not sank us. Nevertheless, it was a huge tragedy narrowly averted.  Still and all, we had some damage to ponder and immediately began planning what to do.

location of rock - note the drastic change of our track

location of rock – note the drastic change of our track

We have given the coordinates of the rock to all our friends who will go through this area.  Some are labelling it as “Neko’s Rock” – we hope the name doesn’t stick.  If you are heading this way, mark it on your chart 08 17.129N  078 50.868W

Next:  Boat repairs in remote places.

Mind the Gap

You may know by now we have made it to Panama City and are moored at the very entrance to the Panama Canal.

Balboa Yacht Club mooring field at the entrance to the Panama Canal

Balboa Yacht Club mooring field at the entrance to the Panama Canal

It’s lovely to be here in a large cosmopolitan city.

Panama City Skyline

Panama City Skyline

But I will tell you it was not easy. To get here we had to traverse the third, and generally considered the tamest, of the Central American Gap Wind passages. (See our posts on Tehuantepec and Papagayo). You may recall from my earlier blatherings that these gap winds blow from the Caribbean over low stretches of the Central America isthmus and become accelerated due to land effects (narrow valleys, tall mountains, convection currents, etc.). This third and final bit blows north to south in the Golfo de Panama. Generally, these are lighter than other gap winds and are usually not a problem this time of year. However, unlike the others which are traversed at right angles to the wind, here you have to take them head on for 130 miles or so until you get into the lee of the mainland or the Las Perlas islands.

The guardian of this area is a notorious piece of land appropriately named Punta Mala. Once you leave to round this point and get into the large gulf, there is generally no safe place to duck into if the conditions are ugly. Before setting off on the 2 day trip up into the gulf, we staged overnight in a desolate bay on the western side of Punta Mala which showed no signs of any human presence other than cows inexplicably milling about on the black sand beach.

Leaving Naranjo Bay on a sparkly morning

Leaving Naranjo Bay on a sparkly morning

Island in Panama

In any event, early in the morning after one night in mystery cow bay we set out for the southernmost of the LasPerlas islands, which form a very beautiful, lightly inhabited archipelago in the Gulf of Panama. As a landing target they would shave off about 40 miles compared to a direct shot to Panama City. Well, it was an ugly trip generally. The winds never got much over 25 knots, but the currents in the Golfo de Panama are strong and alternate like clockwork. With 12-18 foot tides in this part of the world, the water rushes in and out at great speeds. Having to spend about an entire day working our way up the gulf, we were destined to face an adverse current at least twice. This was what made the trip a little challenging. When the brisk north winds opposed a north-setting current, we were faced with ugly, steep and closely-spaced seas that slowed us to a crawl and plunged the bows under water over and over again.

Roller coaster  - motorsailing with just the main

Roller coaster – motorsailing with just the main

Thankfully, the old ship Neko is a stoutly built boat and she shrugged off all that water without concern. We can’t say as much for her crew and after 30 hours of this treatment we were ready for a little peace and quiet. Early in the morning on the 2nd day of the trip, we pulled into a calm, picture-perfect bay on the island of Isla San Jose to drop the anchor and get some rest.

We spent two days resting and exploring the waters of this privately-owned island. Yes, its about 17 square miles and all privately owned. We saw a landing craft drop a bunch of pallets of supplies on the beach and the owners’ workers come and tote them away by tractor. The owners allow certain people to live on the island, including the man who lives in a little hut perched precariously on the edge of a cliff.  They say he walks 10 feet out his door and drops a fishing line down the cliff face to pull in dinner. [Ed: add that great pic we have.  Auth:  Sorry, it’s lost in the computer crash]   We didn’t see him but did see the little shack on the cliffs’ edge and can attest to the abundant sea life in the waters. We are quite excited to begin seeing clear water and sea life again after the murky waters of Mexico and Central America.  Afterwards, we set off for Isla San Telmo, a tiny island with a 100+ year old submarine still high and dry on shore since it washed up after its occupants ascended too swiftly, suffered decompression sickness and died inside. This was straight out of Jules Verne. Who could pass up something like that, but little did I know it would almost lead to our undoing… [to be continued]

 

NB: Our photos relating to this time perished in Mary’s computer crash, hence the abundance of text.  If we can resuscitate them, we’ll update this post but we are putting it up now anyway to try to get our postings caught up with where we are.

Two Down, One To Go

Sailing south from Mexico to Panama a boat has to pass three hairy spots where the wind can be fierce. These are areas where the trade winds from the Caribbean blow across the narrow Central America isthmus and accelerate as they are funneled through mountain valleys.  The first such place is the Gulf of Tehuantepec. We crossed this 250 mile stretch of water with little difficulty. The second are the Papagayo winds that blow along the coast from El Salvador to northern Costa Rica, but are strongest on Nicaragua’s’ Pacific coast.  The third is the Gulf of Panama which we will face on our way to the canal.

1 = Tehuantepec 2 = Papagayo 3 = Golfo de Panama

1 = Tehuantepec
2 = Papagayo
3 = Golfo de Panama

We crossed the second of these most recently.  We left El Salvador with a good weather window but quickly ran into a steady 20 knots of wind on the nose. The strategy for navigating these winds is to stay very close to shore.  Since the winds blow from the land, staying close to land gives little room (fetch, in sailing terminology) for the winds to build up waves. Dealing with a lot of wind is one thing, dealing with a lot of wind and big waves is another, and one we try not to face.  DSCN2754So hugging the shore and passing along the barren shores of El Salvador and Nicaragua, we, along with our buddy boat Mermaid, sailed into this stuff hour after hour. Finally, as dark was setting in on the second night, we had had enough and looked for a bay to wait it out (these winds can blow even harder after dark). We pulled into Astillera in Nicaragua, a largely empty bay, to anchor overnight. The winds howled all night but we slept well in the shelter of this remote bay. The next morning, we were greeted by a stern young man from the Nicaraguan navy on our stern. He asked what we were doing here and to see our papers.

Neko being boarded by the Nicaraguan navy.

Neko being boarded by the Nicaraguan navy.

Satisfied that we were leaving in an hour and were only there to wait out the wind, he went over to inspect Mermaid. Frankly, I was pleasantly surprised that we didn’t have to pay any “fees” or “fines”. With no choice but to leave, we went out into more wind than the day before. That day we had a blistering sail with gusts to 45. With 2 reefs in the main and the staysail up, we hit speeds up to 11 knots. We hugged the coast and with the wind more to the side of the boat, the sailing was easier. We flew down the coast of Nicaragua, past our last intended “bailout” bay and into the relative safety of Costa Rica. By the end of the day the Papagayo winds had slowed down, and we coasted into an anchorage tired and exhilarated. Now we can slow down and sight-see a bit (off to the Monteverde cloud forest).

Costa Rica

Costa Rica