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Costa Rica

Sun drenches the wide scimitar of sand as we wander barefoot in the shallows. Mist clings to the distant reefs protruding into the Pacific as a faint breeze disturbs the coconut palms along the beach.

I am in a tropical paradise called Montezuma on the Nicoya Peninsula of western Costa Rica. This remote fishing village - a mere handful of huts and cafes huddled along a couple of dirt roads - is a popular destination for travelers seeking pristine beauty and a laid-back atmosphere.Eager to escape the relaxation of my hammock, I opt for a five-mile hike to a waterfall which cascades into the ocean.

Leaving Montezuma, my two companions and I head north along the water's edge. Here the coast fractures into a series of rocky headlands separated by crescent-shaped bays. Claustrophobic jungle vegetation crowds the shoreline.

It is early morning, but already I wipe the sweat from my brow.

Above the hissing surf, pelicans cruise the thermals, suddenly plunging head first into the waves. Frigate birds hang in the air like black kites. Colorful parrots flit and screech in the palms.

Thirty miles to the east across the royal blue Gulf of Nicoya, the mountains of mainland Costa Rica seem to float in a fine turquoise haze.

Approaching a promontory, we follow the well-beaten trail into the forest, thankful for the shade. A group of white-faced monkeys bicker in the almond trees, disturbed by our approach. They stare at me as if I were a zoo exhibit and, as I take a photo, one throws a nut at me. I hear a deep rumbling growl and look further into the jungle to see a dark brown howler monkey foraging in the canopy.

An hour and a half later, as the sun beats down relentlessly from an azure sky, we realize our water bottles are nearly empty.

With perfect timing, we glimpse a thatched hut among the coconut trees. A sign advertises, "Se vende pipas." "Coconuts for sale."

This is how we encounter Jose.

Gray-haired and barefoot, he is dressed in a torn white undershirt and red shorts. Peering short-sightedly through thick glasses, his wide smile greets us as we enter his yard. He ushers us to a rough wooden table shaded by palm fronds. Slashing the top off three green coconuts, he inserts straws and places them in front of us. He then fills our water containers with cool artesian water from a nearby spring. He charges us a few colones each.

Refreshed, we leave the coconut grove remarking on what an exceptionally nice person we have encountered.

A mile or so around the sweep of the bay, we see a streak of water tumbling from a low, forested bluff. As we get closer, we hear the thunder of water crashing into the sea.

A short, rough climb upward brings us to a green grotto. The three-story-high waterfall spills over a fern-fringed cliff directly into a tide pool. About halfway down, a cavelike recess allows one to walk behind the cascade. Low rocks almost entirely surround the lagoon protecting it from the full force of the Pacific.

A few people, both locals and North Americans, sit under the waterfall or swim in the tepid sea water. Three boys scramble up the side of the crag and I wonder if they will dive. They don't dare.

We linger in the pool and then wash the salt off under the cold falls.

After a while we return to Jose's and purchase glasses of fresh-squeezed lemonade. Noticing that my glass is a little smaller than the others, he brings me an extra cupful - at no extra charge.

He shows us an article pinned to the wall of his cabin. It is a clipping about him from an American newspaper.

It says that Jose Francisco Vasquez has lived on this beach for more than 33 years. He spends his time selling coconuts and watching the tide go in and out.

I'm not very smart, but I'm no fool. I'm 69 years old and I must take advantage of the years I have. That's why I live here...

Jose Francisco Vasquez The writer quotes him as saying, "I'm not very smart, but I'm no fool. I'm 69 years old and I must take advantage of the years I have. That's why I live here . . . " The author calls him the Good Samaritan of Cocalito Beach.

Suddenly, Jose points through the coconut palms. We are just in time to see a young man shinny up a white trunk and disappear into the thick fronds 30 feet above the ground. Here he perches and hacks away at the heavy bunches of coconuts suspended below the tree's crown. He ties these to a rope slung over a branch and carefully lowers them to his partner below.

For 30 minutes or more we watch spellbound. A number of bunches falls accidentally, sometimes cracking a nut open and allowing the delicate juice to spill out. Jose encourages us to help ourselves to as many as we would like.

After harvesting maybe 50, the man walks down the tree trunk gripping only with hands and feet. He then begins to stack the coconuts in a pile beside Jose's hut.

Reluctantly, we leave Playa Cocalito and trudge back to Montezuma.

I wander along the dusty street, between the haphazard collection of cafes and houses, up the hill to my lodgings. I clamber back into my hammock and rock to the rhythmic pounding of the surf far below.

Another perfect day in paradise.