Walking on the tail of a whale

(To read El Gringo Feo’s Costa Rica Diary from the beginning, start here.)

Wednesday, August 29

Map that shows the whale’s tail.

Wednesday dawned fresh and cool after the previous night’s downpour, so I decided to take advantage of the relatively clear skies to hike out to the Whale’s Tail.

I ducked into La Ballena Roja (The Red Whale) for a quick breakfast before hitting the beach. There were two options: Continental or Gallo Pinto. I went with the former, despite misgivings at the quoted $7 US price. Add another $1.50 for a glass of pure papaya juice and a buck for coffee and that felt really pricey based on what I’ve been paying for breakfast thus far. But what the hell …

I sat down and the coffee arrived. Then a large fruit plate with acres of pineapple, papaya and watermelon. Then four pieces of toast, plus jam and butter. And a piece of lunch meat and cheese. After a bit more, two scrambled eggs were brought out.

But wait, there’s more. The pièce de résistance: a glass of pure papaya juice. It was more slushy than juice, and then it dawned on me why the woman who took my order looked a tad concerned when I asked for jugo de papaya.

“¿Solamente papaya?” she asked.

“Sí,” I said, wondering if that was the right answer …

It was. Though it really was more solid than liquid.

I ate almost everything except one piece of the toast, the lunchmeat and the cheese. When I went up to pay in colones, I got another pleasant surprise. Total cost: 4,000, or about $7. Still pricey but worth it. I left a generous tip, put in my AirPods and headed to the beach listening to a heartbreaking episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast. The episode, “Miss Buchanan’s Period of Adjustment,” details one of the great failures of school desegregation: the integration of African American teachers. In short, they weren’t integrated at all. The white schools were forced to open their doors to black students, but they didn’t have to bring in black teachers. And overwhelmingly, they didn’t. Gladwell cites stats showing that black kids who have at least a few black teachers in elementary school tend to fair much better. All things being equal, white teachers are less likely to channel gifted black children into gifted programs, for instance. So these kids are cast into white schools surrounded by white students and taught by white teachers … and they founder. Gladwell argues, correctly, I think, that we desegregated the schools backward. Teachers should have been desegregated first.

I used the Playa Colonia entrance to the beach, paying $6 US to enter the amazing resource that is Ballena National Marine Park. And I bounced off down la playa toward the Whale’s Tail.

Along the way, I watched several boatloads of tourists launch from the surf to view the humpback whales that frequent this stretch of coast from July through late October. When I finally got to the tombolo that forms the Whale’s Tail, it was beautiful but not exactly what I expected. I timed it perfectly, arriving at low tide. A wide vast stretch of sandy beach was exposed, jutting out toward rocky outcroppings in the sea. To the north was Playa Hermosa and back behind me, to the south, was Playa Colonia. Basically, at this point I was standing on the dorsal ridge leading to the flukes of the whale’s tail.

I walked toward the rocks, which form the flukes. I wasn’t too eager to scramble across the rocks to get to the very end so I stood there and did a slow 360-degree turn, trying to get a sense of the tail.

No way. From ground level, I wouldn’t have known it formed the tail of a whale. Having seen it on maps and photos, it was easy to get my head around the component parts, but amid the rocks and sand, it was a really cool peninsula jutting out into the sea. Until high tide, when it’s more a series of breakers as the sea swamps the sand and most of the rock outcroppings. Even from my perch at the shack, it’s tough to see it as a whale’s tail since my elevation is only a few hundred feet and I’m viewing it from an acute angle.

I took a few photos and started back, passing a woman pushing a tandem baby stroller along the beach. The stroller was empty and its former occupants, a pair of little gingers who looked to be about 2, were smothered in sun block, giving them a ghostly appearance. One trailed close to mom and the carriage. The other stood off a bit, mesmerized by the sea. “She’s going to be the explorer,” I chuckled, watching the child bask in the enormity of it all before her mother reeled her back in.

In all, the walk was about 4 miles round trip and worth every step of it.


Back at the house, I watched a pair of black-mandibled toucans forage in a nearby tree. This was the closest I’d been to them, and the longest they hung around despite my gawking. I’ll never tire of that.

The rest of the day was spent in the hammock, reading Jack Ewing’s marvelous Where Tapirs and Jaguars Once Roamed: Ever-Evolving Costa Rica. When the inevitable rains came, I retreated inside to bang my head off my Spanish workbook for a few hours.

I finished the night listening to Mike Duncan’s Revolutions podcast. He finally got to the Mexican revolutions, which I’ve long awaited. While I listened to the rise and fall of Father Hidalgo, Guerrero and Santa Ana, lightning danced out over the Pacific. A sublime end to a sublime day.