MKM Photography » The Website of Seattle Photographer Meghan McMackin

Costa Rica Part I


This is one of my favorite places on Earth. The images are scanned from slides I shot during my first two trips to Costa Rica.

I arrived in San José for the first time on August 25th, 2001. I had gone there to study for a semester abroad. I spent most of my time living with a family and going to school in the city, but I was also assigned to live with another family in a rural area for two weeks as part of the program. I ended up in Pejivalle, a tiny town located in a green, river-crossed valley on the eastern slope of the volcanic Talamanca mountain range.

As I was reminiscing, I thought it would be fun to pull out my old journals, and found a few passages to accompany the photos…


2-October-2001, (martes), 9:57pm ~ Pejivalle

This morning I had black coffee with the traditional breakfast called “Gallo Pinto” – a mixture of rice, black beans, onion, red pepper, and Salsa Lizano (like Worcestershire sauce) – served with a lightly scrambled egg.  After breakfast, I took a walk to El Humo. Along the way, I met a man on the street harvesting coffee from his small, roadside plantation, and took some pictures. He explained that only the red “berries” are actually ripe, and would have to be sorted from the rest. He said that he was harvesting some of his coffee now because he needs the money, even though most of the berries are still green and yellow.



I didn’t find anything in my journal about this man and his traditional ox cart, but I remember taking this photograph. The man put up his hand to stop me from taking a picture, but I thought he was waving and took one anyway. It turned out that he just wanted me to wait for him to get down from the cart and pose his oxen for their formal portrait. Unfortunately, the frame you see above was the last one on the roll, and I had no more film with me that day. I didn’t want to disappoint him since he’d put so much effort into helping me get a great picture, so I pretended to take a few more shots and thanked him profusely.



5-October-2001, ~8:15am

Doña Rosa has 13 siblings, and most of them still live around here, so walking around town (and outside of town) almost everyone we meet is family in one way or another. Doña Rosa likes to take long walks, and so do I, so we go “pataperreando” (her term, which I can only loosely translate as “dog-footing”) all over the countryside. She told me that there are some kids who walk about 5 miles to school barefoot (or in sandals that are worn through on the bottom.) Coffee and Sugar prices are really low, so times are hard.

On Sunday we’re going to take a picnic to the river…



7-October-2001, 9:53pm

We all went to the river today in Tío Marvin’s homemade tourist wagon, pulled by don Horacio’s tractor. It doesn’t get much use except by the family, as there aren’t many tourists in this part of the country yet. We swam and floated in the river for hours. Afterwards, Karla and I lay down on the rocky shore to dry out in the sun. We could hear the family laughing from down the beach and calling us “arroz y frijoles” (rice and beans) because of the striking difference in the color of our skin.


In the summer of 2003, I made my second journey to Costa Rica. I traveled alone for a while, visiting my host families and reacquainting myself with the country. Then my friend Lauren came from Boston to spend a couple of weeks with me. We joined another friend of mine on a birding and surfing trip to the northern Pacific coast before I took her to meet my family in Pejivalle.


4-July-2003, Peña Bruja (Witch’s Rock) – of “The Endless Summer II” fame

This place is incredible. The beach stretches around the bay in a long, shallow curve. It’s surrounded by rolling hills of tropical dry forest filled with birdsong (banded wrens, tropical kingbirds, parrots, white-tipped doves,) and the distant, lonely whoop of howler monkeys. Steep, wooded cliffs slide down to the edge of the warm, green-blue waters of the Pacific. There are very few people here. The road we took is probably the roughest I’ve ever been on. To get here, we had to drive through rivers, traverse several extensive mud pools (where we almost got stuck,) and carefully navigate large sections of road “paved” in boulders. Some people come by boat to surf for the day only. It’s hot, but the trade-winds have shifted so last night we got dumped on. We were not very prepared for the rain with only one small, stuffy tent for four people. The mosquitoes are pretty bad, but manageable so far. I want to try to see some leatherback sea turtles and crocodiles tonight.


We took a great birding hike yesterday evening through the mangrove swamps and tropical dry forest. We ended up coming out of the trees behind the crocodile lagoon, and when we walked out onto the beach, we saw a fairly small (6-foot-long) crocodile crawl down the beach and slip into the darkening water.

At Witch’s Rock, the best surfing area is at the mouth of a large estuary that provides passage for the crocodiles from their home in the lagoon to their hunting grounds in the open water. The surfers say they fear the crocodiles more than sharks because with a shark attack, you at least have a chance to try to fight it off. A crocodile, on the other hand, will pull its prey underwater and drown it before devouring it. I don’t know if that’s true, but I think I’ll stick to trying to surf the small waves down the beach.



14-July-2003, Pejivalle

In the afternoon on Sunday, we went with the whole family to la parcela (the family’s small farm across the river.) Ana Yancy and doña Rosa made salad with limón, fried chicken over a wood fire, fried tilapia that we fished from the pond, and rice. The dogs ate the chicken bones. After lunch, we took a short hike up to the top of the hill to look out over the valley. In front of us, just below, was the cabin and pond. The smoke drifting from the cooking fire behind the cabin mixed with the fog which rose like smoke from behind the surrounding hills.

We saw the rainstorm before it hit us, sweeping in from the Southeast; a dense, grey curtain. We shuffled quickly under the barbed-wire fence and ran down the red dirt road. We made it safely to the cabin and under cover just as the first big drops fell. Everyone huddled inside and pulled the little kids away from the muddy doorways for the next twenty minutes. The thin wooden walls shuddered with the thunder, and a few raindrops leaked through the nail holes in the tin roof, but we managed to stay fairly dry. When the downpour let up, doña Rosa made coffee the traditional way – pouring boiling water over the grounds, which are held in a cloth filter that looks sort of like a dirty sock. She added extra sugar to compliment the sweet bread from the panadería (bakery). It was way too sweet for me, but it felt good to drink something warm.


I’ve been back two more times since 2003 (I’ll share more recent photos in a later post). Many things have changed over the past ten years. More tourists have found Pejivalle since the river has been “discovered” by international kayakers and white-water rafters. The kids have all grown, and some of the roads have been paved. What hasn’t changed is my sense of connection to the place and to my family. I can’t wait to go back in June.


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