My good friend Gabo lives in Argentina. Another hemisphere. Half a world away. Needless to say, we don’t see each other often. But when I lived in Buenos Aires for a bit, he was a great friend to this temporary ex-pat gringa.
Gabo first met Nate and I when he stayed with us as an Airbnb guest in 2013. He’s a big part of why we included Argentina in our world trip (more here and here). But those are stories for another day.
So when Gabo told us he was vacationing in Florida this year, I made plans to meet up with him for the weekend.
Our original plan was to kayak and camp in the Everglades. The hurricanes earlier this fall put a damper on that idea; the sites we planned to book and most of the park were closed for weeks after. So I researched a Plan B. And it was a pretty great Plan B, I must say.
Cayo Costa is a state park. It’s an island about 9 miles long, only accessible by boat, and doesn’t have any amenities aside from some toilets and one outdoor shower.
There are some bunkhouses, but Gabo and I decided to camp. Neither of us had camped in the tropics before. There were plenty of surprises, both good and bad. (Good: Sound of the waves lulling us to sleep! Bad: No-see-ums left us looking like we had chicken pox and scratching for weeks after).
Camping was mostly a delight. Most other campers bring coolers, chairs, and of course their fishing gear on the ferry ride over. Since we both flew in, we were limited in our food options, with no way to keep food cold and only a tiny backpacking stove and pot, but we still ate quite well. Gabo made sure we had a supply of wine. Because Argentina. (Though he opted for Chilean when he saw the selection at Trader Joe’s).
Some generous lawyers took us under their wing and offered to share their breakfast feast with us when I was on my way back from the shower (apparently looking dejected and hungry). They were leaving that day and needed to lighten their boat. Breakfast burritos, breakfast beer and wine spritzers, bacon, french toast… we are forever indebted to them. Our breakfast plan was bananas and oranges.
The water on the island was potable, but brown (and tasted it). Since it was warm from the tap, it was pretty hard to swallow. Literally. These guys gave us some extra bottles, too.
Also noteworthy on the food front, Gabo had his first toasted marshmellow. I’m honored you allowed me to show you how to do it, dude.
On our first night, in the middle of the night, I awoke to something making noise outside of our tent. Never a fan of this, I mumbled something in surprise, but made no move to see what it was. Gabo put his big boy pants on, unzipped the tent, and peeked outside:
“Oh,” he said, in the most normal voice.
“It’s just an armadillo.”
…which is just not a thing I ever thought I’d hear while camping.
Kayaking With Manatees
The highlight of the trip was definitely the kayaking! Gabo and I are both regular kayakers in the waters of our respective cities, so getting to paddle together finally was long-awaited.
When we rented the kayaks for the afternoon, the woman told us “look for the cove on the right; you might see some manatees.” That was an understatement. After 15 minutes of choppy bay kayaking, new to both of us, we saw the cove and ducked in. Mangroves surrounded us on each side of a narrow canal. Moments after turning in, I heard a twig snap to my left, and glanced over just as an alligator was slinking into the water. Expletives and frantic paddling followed, and when we reached the point where the cove opened up a bit, we saw there was just one other boat anchored inside: a sweet young family from Indiana who had just heard and seen all of my panicked display. After apologies and introductions, we all marveled at what was happening around us: manatees. Everywhere!
They were very friendly, weaseling their way under and around our kayaks to say hello, and almost tipping us over in the process. When we would paddle, they would follow. And since they’re mammals and breathe above water, every time they came up to take a loud, long breath, they’d surprise us!
Since we had a bit more time and some energy left, we decided to paddle towards a striking white beach off in the distance. It was part of one of the many keys surrounding Cayo Costa. Paddling yourself to a deserted tropical island feels pretty cool.
Our reward for a day well spent was wine on the beach at sunset back on Cayo Costa!
You can see in the photo above that the beach doesn’t have much soft sand. It’s almost all broken shells. Which means you can find a lot of whole shells! And sea urchins. And sand dollars. We spent a good amount of time rooting around for treasures and found some great ones.
Another highlight was running on the island’s trails. They’re not exceptionally well-maintained, especially after the hurricane, so we spent a fair bit of it jumping to avoid branches, palms, and snakes. We also came across a small pioneer cemetery, with shell-marked graves of some of the early (white) settlers. In the late 1800s, about 20 fishing families lived on the island. Before them, the Calusa tribe lived here. Now, aside from a few park rangers, there are no permanent residents.
After our run, we took off our shoes and jumped straight into the ocean. At which point the clouds promptly opened wide and dumped a quick rainstorm on us, which actually felt lovely.
Cayo Costa is kind of a dream. It made me change my mind about Florida. No longer is it just the land of Disney and retired snowbirds for me. Cayo Costa is a rare, undeveloped, primitive, natural Florida. Well worth the effort you need to put into getting there.