Yesterday, Brigid took me out to dinner for my 34th birthday. The whole thing was hyped up because the restaurant itself—a place called Casa Cielo Alto—was, according to the Google listing “RESERVATION ONLY”. When Brigid went to make the reservation 3 months ago, the soonest available opening fell on my birthday weekend. To heighten everything, I never buy wine but happened across a bottle of Spanish wine from the about the same time I lived there in 2008, and from the same region where I studied. Back then, bottles of Casa Viejo were 20 euros—I know because I smuggled back roughly ten of them as Christmas gifts—but now, almost 10 years later, the label showed age, it was wrapped in gold wire, and was by far the most expensive alcohol I’ve ever bought.
The restaurant required 4×4 to reach, so our friends Jee and Reid picked us up in their dusty beige 2005 Toyota SUV. We said bye to the sitter and climbed into the back. It was hot, and I rolled down the window to make a little extra room for my elbow. We drove 10 minutes down the Costanera, crowded on both sides by deep green jungle that would occasionally drop off to reveal the ocean. It was 5:30 PM, the sun was beginning to set, and the clouds were pink.
We missed our right turn right turn, an unmarked dirt road going straight up the mountainside. As Reid pulled into a U-turn, I reminded everyone that, less than 1 month into the new year, 9 people had already died on this same 30-mile stretch of the Costanera.
Just last week, a local man crashed his little sedan and lost both legs and genitals. This was explained to me by our nanny, whose husband is a police officer and sent her a video of the man, still fully conscious, talking with the passerby’s that were attempting to pry open his door with a huge steel bar. I told Reid to focus because doing a U-turn on a quiet Friday night on the Costanera under the fading light of day felt like a perfect moment to die in a freak car accident. “If anyone questions how intense it can feel to move here from the USA”, I said as we got back on the road safely, “explain to them that if you get in a terrible car accident, assuming you don’t get swallowed by the jungle, you better not be bleeding out because they don’t bring the fire brigade with the jaws of life. They bring a 1980’s Landcruiser and a big steel bar.
We finally found our turn and began to climb the mountain, up a series of gravel switchbacks to the top of a Ridgeline, then down into a small valley. In this moment, having traveled so far to be where we were, with Brigid at my side looking as beautiful as she ever has, on a weird and mysterious adventure with new and mysterious friends, I felt a weightlessness that, for a moment, tapped me back into the Spring that I fell in love with Brigid. It was 2011 and we were in the senior year of college. If my memories are bottles of wine, these moments are the most prized in my collection, the ones I keep in as secret vault under the foundation. In this moment, I could have been a wine connoisseur, stealing away for a few minutes to dust off and cradle his most cherished bottles. Take these bottles from me and the rest of the collection is meaningless, I thought in the midst of this beautiful moment, leaving the kids behind to careen through the jungles of Costa Rica in a dusty SUV with my college sweetheart.
With the help of some locals waiting for a ride down the mountain—“derecho por 800 metros, sube, baja, tube, izquierda, y otra izquiera”, said a young girl. “800 metros?”, I confirmed. The girl nodded yes, but the abuela standing next to her felt the duty to add nuance: “800 metros, mas o menos.” “Mas o menos”, I replied affirmatively. “Mas o menos”, she repeated, apparently satisfied with my comprehension.
The abuela was correct and at the top of the mountain we passed our keys to a Tico guy who directed us into a huge restaurant villa. The villa consisted of a colorful open-air kitchen surrounded by tables. We walked past the kitchen where the cooks were flipping sautées and placing sprigs of parsley on little creations on plates and filed discretely through a group of tables. As I walked among these well-dressed and good-looking people, I briefly scanned for Cameron Diaz but realized I have no idea what she looks like. We ended up at the corner of the villa, on a little balcony area with a wide open view of the sun setting over the Pacific.
As the sunset faded, it suddenly felt like everything was moving too fast, like I was falling in love with…what exactly? I squinted my eyes and wondered, Am I being seduced? I quickly looked around and ruled out all possibilities and suddenly remembered: this is what a magical moment feels like. It had been a while, thus the blush. For the past 10 years, I’ve been building a partnership, a career, a family, a home, and without many breaks. Head down. During that time, God, the author of magical moments, has instead been the one who provides order and, with his big hands, holds the earth and the sky apart while I labor. Arriving at Cielo Alto felt like God and I both took a break to embrace and reconnect.
I could tell you about the farm-to-table cuisine and the 3 courses, how the cork broke but the wine tasted incredible, how Reid and I bonded over our shared struggles as husbands, fathers, and primary income earners over a post-desert cigarette, or the kiss Brigid and I shared behind the restaurant in the darkness under the starlight while Jee chatted up the chef and Reid got the car, but that’s what your imagination is for!
If you’re ever planning on being in the area, shoot a What’s App message to Rancho Cielo Alto at 8555 2322. When we booked in November was a 3 months wait so be patient.