Maybe it’s the increasing need to find a replacement for what America once was, or just the plain joy of sports fishing, but whatever die real motive, I found myself headed for Costa Rica in October. I had most of a day free in San Jose before a little bush plane would fly me at six the next morning over to the Caribbean side. Not wanting to spend the afternoon touching up my tan by the gigantic pool at the Hotel Irazu, I did something I seldom do: I took a tour bus around town.

As happens on many journeys, the accidental incidents or sights were half the attraction. Traffic in San Jose is congested big time and most of the time. You take your life in your hands at a crossing when you walk with the light. Against the light . . . muerto. Thus it was quite funny, but telling, when we passed what looked like a small fenced “city,” designed for Lilliputians, where children were taught how to survive the San Jose traffic with little stop signs and crosswalks.

We need one of those in the town where I live, but for high-school students. They have the best computers that property taxes can buy, have been schooled in how to use condoms, but at lunchtime, rather than walk 30 feet to a crossing, they run across a busy four-lane thoroughfare to get to the Taco Bell. Its only a matter of time before the feds sue Taco Bell after they finish with the gun manufacturers.

Somewhere in San Jose, I noticed a very long line of people snaking its way around several corners. My genial tour host told me they were Nicaraguan illegals trying to get papers so they could work. There are now a half-million illegal Nicaraguans in Costa Rica. I thought all the trouble was over in Nicaragua. I mean, it had free elections, overseen by President Jimmy, the commies were voted out . . . but that’s right, the two Ortega brothers were left in charge of the army. Big change from Somoza, right?

A short digression. I went to the same high school as Barry Seals. Barry was an enterprising lad, flying dope out of Latin America and doing quite well. But the feds caught him and put him on their team. They rigged up his cargo plane with hidden cameras, and that’s how we got the film of the Ortega brothers loading dope on Barry’s plane in Nicaragua. At this point, I’m hazy on the details, but because of some jurisdictional dispute between our federal dope guys and a federal judge, Barry was not free and clear, but had to go to a “halfway house” punctually at five o’clock every night. I’hat was a death sentence, of course. In a short time, he was shot to death entering die Salvation Army dormitory for his five o’clock curfew. Turned out to be not halfway but all the way.

Another thing the tour host told us was that when John Kennedy came to Costa Rica, one of its famous volcanoes erupted. The Costa Ricans told him the volcano was saying hello. That’s what they thought it was saving. It was actually commenting on the Kennedy women—Marilyn Monroe and Sam Giancanna’s mistress on loan to the White House.

We toured what some call the prettiest building in San Jose, the National Theater, built in 1897. The capital city is said to be built on coffee, and the rich coffee planters and merchants volunteered for a tax (what?!) on coffee that paid for this baroque opera house (which also hosts Julio Iglesias and Jethro Tull). Belgian architects drew up the plans, and the metal superstructure was made in Belgium, but what struck me the most was how dominant Italian artists were. Some painters and decorators were brought to Costa Rica: Serra, Andreoli, Ferrario, and Fontana. Others, like Bulgarelli and Froli, did the sculpture for the façade, and inside there are statues by Genovese artist Pietro Capurro. Our guide pointed to a scene on the ceiling and remarked that the buxom lasses did not look at all like Costa Rican women. The Italian artist had simply painted the Italian women he knew.

The best of the tour for me was the National Museum, housed in what had been an army barracks that was part of the fighting during the civil war of 1948, the pockmarks of firing in evidence. After the war, the army was dissolved. (That’s one way to do it.) Inside the courtyard were huge stone balls, so big I thought no cannon could fire them. Later, I found out that no one knows with certainty what they are . . . just that they are not cannonballs. Some think they are simply products of geological forces, but others think they might have been pre-Columbian boundary markers. Though not primarily a natural history museum, the place did contain some stuffed animals and birds, and the prettiest vulture I have ever seen—wish ours were that handsome while not in flight.

Being an aficionado of archaeology, I was attracted to the pre-Columbian pottery, the early workings in gold, and especially the stone carvings. The average metate for grinding corn is carved on simple, functional lines; the metate in the museum clearK served other purposes. Museum notes said they were found on graves. The time and energy needed to craft such artifacts set one to pondering the relationship between beauty and death, beauty and rebirth. Carved during a time when most of one’s effort was directed to elemental survival, the metate puzzle us about their intent. Looking backward, the carver could have done it out of gratitude for his own life, which stood on the shoulders of the deceased; looking forward, perhaps also from respect and gratitude, be was offering the dead a metate for the corn he would need to grind in the underworld, the world from which corn surely came. In any ease, an elegy in stone.

Next morning, I was winging it across die mountains to the east and then over the emerald jungle. We made a landing at Tortugero on the coast, then headed north to Barra Colorado. Both landings on the short strips made me hope, for the sake of my wife, that I had put all my financial affairs in order. Four or five fishermen were waiting to board the return flight to San Jose, and I asked one of them whether he’d had any luck. After a couple of expletives, he said, “My whole groin is black and blue from fighting fish.” Oddly, for a fisherman, this was good news.

A local man who was to be my guide took me to the river, and we boarded a little skiff upriver to Casa Mar. The landing-strip side of the river was a little more upscale than the other side, but there was the same laid-back, lethargic world of the Caribbean. Houses thrown together, roofed with odd pieces of tin, people lying on the porch or in hammocks inside. It was still early in the morning. Soon, only the bush lined the side of the river and familiar egrets waded or flew over.

Bill Barnes has owned the fishing camp, Casa Mar, for 32 years. Born in Maryland, he grew up in the South, settling in Homestead, Florida. After coaching and teaching biology, he took up his real love, fishing. I do not know if Bill holds other records, but I know he held the IGFA record for snook on 15-lb. fippet, 26 lbs., back in 1980. He has created the kind of place other men dream about as they look out the windows of their offices back stateside. No discos or spas, no haute cuisine, just a fishing camp with good American-Caribbean home cooking. The grounds of Casa Mar are carefully tended, the grass kept short to help keep out the fer-de-lance, the bushmaster, and the boa constrictor. From my cabin, I always passed beautiful small orchids on the way to the open-air dining room or the adjacent bar.

I no sooner dropped my bags, changed clothes, and wolfed down a breakfast of bacon and eggs with fresh pineapple and guava on tire side than I got aboard my skiff and we were away. We retraced our way to Barra, then on a mile or so, where Ramon, my guide, pulled up at a little shack on the shore, a hand-drawn sign announcing “Naval Station.” He showed one of the sleepy naval attendants a document permitting him to go out and fish, and we were off. I noticed an amusing “gun emplacement,” sandbags about 18 inches high and no gun. No doubt to stop an invasion by sea.

Just as the Rio Colorado meets the Caribbean, the surf is often quite rough, especially with an incoming tide and/or a west-flowing wind. Once we were beyond the breakers the first morning, the water was calm, and there were lots of small boats about. During late summer and early fall, the tarpon stack up just outside the mouth of the river. They are not always there like fenced-in cattle, but most of the time they are in the vicinity. Guides from other fishing camps are loath to radio anyone else about where the fish are, for soon 20 or 30 boats will be working the same area.

We soon cut the motor and were “jigging” with a two-ounce Coast Hawk, a lure made in Adkins, Texas. This is not what one normally thinks of as a jig; there is no skirt, no single-weighted head. Rather, the Coast Hawk is a three-inch long piece of painted metal, an eye painted on either side, and two treble hooks. After an hour or so of constantly raising the rod, then letting the lure settle, I lost confidence, and we began to troll big Rapalas a quarter-mile offshore. Bingo! A big silver king launched himself out of the water 50 yards back, and the work began.

I had never brought a tarpon to gaff. The preceding April, when the water had warmed enough for tarpon in the Everglades, I hooked one while trolling a small mangrove river, the treetops covering it completely. In that shadowy sanctuary, when a five-foot tarpon came exploding into this small space, I knew I was in love. It did not matter that he eventually wrapped the line around a mangrove root and was gone. I knew I would pursue.

What I had not anticipated was what would happen when the fish remained hooked, or what having a chair to fight it in would have meant. At least my guide had brought an ancient belt for the rod butt. Standing on the moving deck of the bow while pumping the rod, I invented a new dance form. After an hour of this, a large wooden fishing boat waited nearby, the men yelling back and forth to Ramon. I kept thinking, “I can’t cut the line now . . . mustn’t lose face with this audience.” Finally, after an hour and 15 minutes, we brought the fish to gaff. One hundred and twenty-five pounds.

For anyone looking at the photograph of this tarpon, obviously in no condition to be released in good Flip Fallot fashion, here’s the story. The fellows in the other boat had asked Ramon if their families could have the tarpon to eat. Ramon radioed someone and got permission. No tarpon fisherman I knew ate tarpon (which is good for the tarpon, unlike the tuna, which is too delicious for its own good), but this fish would be made into “tarpon balls” for the folks in the village of Barra Colorado.

Worn-out from my deck ballet, I skipped lunch and enjoyed a siesta. As bad luck would have it, I hooked another one after lunch. Since he was only 70 pounds, I managed to whip him in shorter time. I caught two more the next day (one on a Coast Hawk), and after that decided I was going to major in a smaller species. We tried for big snook, wading in the surf; I had no luck. The sharks that feed in the surf here put an edge on the experience, however.

Even though it is against the law, some of the locals net snook. There are just a few narrow outlets to the sea, and a few natives string nets across whole outlets. They cannot miss. But this is killing the goose that lays the golden egg, because visiting fishermen bring in far more money for the economy. The locals are only paid $1.10 per pound for snook, which are sent to San Jose. A sports fisherman may catch one, and he spends an average of $3 50 a day. Using restraint requires the long view, of course, and that is sometimes difficult for a local who gets between two and three dollars for a whole stalk of bananas.

In one sense, the sea beyond Barra Colorado looks like the sea or gulf off Florida or Louisiana. But when one goes upriver into the jungle, he is hit by the great difference between the temperate and the tropical zones; by the fecundity, the teeming, overflowing life, of the tropics. I cannot imagine this ever not being a mysterious place, and sometimes a dangerous place. I once lived in the bush in Nicaragua where large snakes would wander across the yard while hawks dive-bombed them, and occasionally we would find jaguar tracks along the creek in front of our house.

Bill Barnes had lately brought a young black and tan puppy to Casa Mar; the dog wandered about in an olfactory bliss of scents. My first night, I heard the growling of what had to be a jaguar not far from my cabin, and the black and tan howling in pursuit, all while a light rain hit the tin roof. I hoped that the puppy did not catch up with that eat. But I was happily in my bed, feeling all the great palpability of this vast world and reveling in it. The next day, I asked about the commotion, and several others had heard it, too. It turned out, though, there was no jaguar at all, but a couple of howler monkeys raising Cain. That’s all right . . . I’ll take that over boom boxes and traffic jams any day.