Impressions of Costa Rica
Note to reader: This is a brief impression of this country, from the perspective of one who does not consider herself to be a very sophisticated world traveler…
We landed in at Juan Santa Maria Aeropuerto on a dark, rainy evening, arriving by Delta via Atlanta, Georgia. After maneuvering through Customs and Immigration, we found the area for taxis and shuttle pick-up. We had reservations at a hotel in San Jose, the Barcelo San Jose Palacio. While not the most expensive hotel in the area, it was impressive, considering I got the room at a considerable discount. The hotel also provided for shuttle service. The hotel staff were friendly and understood most of my broken Spanglish.
From our hotel room, we could smell the scents of Costa Rica, the smell of rain, lush greenery, flowers, and hear the sounds of the busy nearby highway and the call of parrots and other bright colored birds.
Tired and exhausted from the trip, we decided to stay over another day, which proved to be more expensive. We also arranged for a brief tour to downtown San Jose. I wouldn’t recommend it, unless you’re ready for complete chaos. The traffic and sheer impact of compressed humanity in that old, disorganized town was mind-blowing. I suppose it is something other world travelers’ encounter in the large cities of India, Southeast Asia and other places, but the first time I had encountered the combination of human misery, vitality and frenetic activity. There are numerous one-way streets in San Jose; I could not begin to tell you how to get anywhere, save by knowing some Spanish and taking either a city bus or taxi to get you where you are going. We had a private driver, which was more expensive, but Achiles knows the city inside and out and watched out for us like an anxious cousin.
In going to this country or any other “foreign” country be prepared to spend more than you bargained for. Bus tickets were more expensive than I was told… being misled by an unfriendly ticket seller in Uvita. She charged us for the full price from David, Panama, rather than the price to San Jose from Uvita. Not all Ticos like Americans. In fact, quite a few proved to be suspicious of us until Maria would let loose a beautiful stream of Castilian Argentine Spanish. Then the suspicious faces would relax and open and become more helpful.
One vivid impression of Costa Rica was the vitality of growth in the vegetation. San Jose and its suburbs spread across the curving Central Valley, but the surrounding mountains are covered in thick vegetation. Smaller Tico settlements, villages and farms hug steep lush hillsides. We did not visit the usual suspects, the tourist areas and the Volcanos. There was so much of Costa Rica that we did NOT see on this one trip; all the more incentive to return and to explore some more.
Basilica of Madre de los Angeles, Cartago
The third day, we were driven from San Jose to San Isidro. We first stopped at Cartago to admire the grand church located there. The church was located on top of a natural spring, capped with cement. The edifice was dedicated to the Madre of Angels and was the most important church in all of Costa Rica, a very devout Catholic country. Our driver, Achiles told us that thousands of people make an annual pilgrimage to the location to honor the Black Madonna there. The ruins of an older church, destroyed during an earthquake, are a stark reminder that this tiny country is a seismically active area, with an abundance of live and dormant volcanoes and thermal hot springs here and there.
“Ruins of older church in Cartago, destroyed by an earthquake”
We drove southward on the winding Pan American Highway, a narrow road often perched on precipitous slopes and ridges above the lush jungle-covered mountains. We passed numerous casitas, including small enclaves of Gringo-styled more expensive houses intermixed with the more modest Tico houses. Small farms were literally clinging to the sides of impressively steep slopes. We traveled through the odd area of the Cloud Forest, with its bizarre vegetation and passed on down the windy route towards the lush valley of San Isidro. We also stopped at a roadside restaurant which served traditional Tico food and other snack items in abundance.
Passing through the mountains, our driver told us how in the times before the highway was constructed, people attempting to reach San Jose from San Isidro and other outlying towns often became lost in the damp, cloudy treacherous reaches of the jungle-covered mountains. The mountains were called the Fields of Death; many souls were lost there, their bodies never to be discovered. The windy route is still challenging and very dark at night, having no lighting of any kind and few center lane markings outside the precincts of the larger settlements.
Winding up in San Isidro, we stayed in the Best Western there where I had, again, made reservations at through Expedia, utilizing my new tablet. The hotel at first seemed nice enough, but they gave us one of the worst rooms, across from the trash area in the back of the motel. Breakfast was nice, until we found out that the waiter had overcharged us twice the advertised amount. I wouldn’t recommend the place. Go elsewhere.
San Isidro is a bustling little mountain town and was quite strange to my eyes. We scrambled across the busy highway between bursts of fast-moving traffic, leaping deep ditches and grassy mounds. Best be in good shape with walking shoes suitable for slippery tiles, cobblestone and concrete / gravel roads and walkways. A couple of interesting revelations hit our consciousness as we walked the busy, wet streets. It was raining. People don’t wear jackets. I had a rain jacket on and was stared at by the locals. Most were carrying umbrellas or just stoically walking through the downpour. The women were wearing either fancy sandals or high heels, 3 to 5 inches in height.
The dress of the Ticos was pretty simple. Men wear t-shirts or cotton short-sleeved button-down shirts and jeans or long shorts. The women wear figure-hugging t-shirts and tight, tight jeans or skirts, sandals or high heels. I couldn’t help wondering how they could navigate the slippery surfaces without breaking their necks. Some of the older women wore dresses or blouses and skirts, still with sandals or high heels.
San Isidro had more zapatarias (shoe stores) than any other place that I have ever visited. There were sometimes five or six in a short block, with plenty of small boutiques, eateries, farmacias (pharmacies) or hardware stores. There was also an abundance of small bakeries, supermercados (supermarkets) and an assortment of other service-related, furniture, appliance and other types of stores.
The town’s lay-out was simple. It is a cross-road between the Pan American Highway and a couple of roads that go to either coast. There is a volcan area nearby, a National Park or two and assorted natural reserves, but not having a car or knowledge of the area limited our ability to visit any of these places. Next trip perhaps.
The next day, we got a taxi to the local bus station for the Blanco Line and caught a bus to Dominical, a small community on the Pacific coast. The ruta was definitely local, stopping every five minutes or so to drop or pick up someone from the side of the narrow highway. The road wound its way through the green ridges to a lush winding valley and eventually to the intersection with the Coast Road, Ruta 34.
Dominical is nothing but a small surfing village with a bumpy “main” road off the main highway. There was an up-cropping of ticky-tacky souvenir and surfer-related shops or eateries. Not really a place to live. The beach was nearby, briefly glimpsed through masses of swaying palm trees. At this point we thought we would hire a taxi to take us to our reserved rooms at a place just south of Bahia, but just as the bus pulled around, another bus pulled in. The bus driver indicated to Maria in quick Spanish that the new bus would take us to Uvita and beyond, as it was heading back to Puerto Cortez, or south towards Panama.
We weren’t too sure of the exact location of the next place we had reserved, so I showed the bus driver its name. He told Maria that it was a little farther than Uvita, but he would drop us off right there. So we drove through the area between Dominical and Uvita, with its various beaches, Tico houses and scattered businesses. Uvita was much bigger than Dominical and more like an established, although sprawling village, with the Coast Highway plunging through the midst of a small business district. The bus continued on until we reached our destination, Hacienda Coope Agri. We were to stay in this friendly location most of the remainder of our short trip.
It was ironic that since my original destination had been Uvita, I did not actually spend much time there. A beach is nearby, some ½ mile or so through the jungle (I’m not sure just where the trail to the beach is located) and there are a few roads that radiate from the highway into the jungle through Tico neighborhoods and past a few businesses and modest hostel / hotels. The occasional Gringo house looks out of place in this modest settlement.
Later in the week, with the aid of a local Taxi driver, we visited the Uvita Cataracts, a series of small falls located on a nice creek. Frankly, I would save my money and go elsewhere. The falls were small and the pools green or brown. The rocks were slippery and treacherous going for the unprepared. Our driver’s son, Joel, was able to climb the slippery rocks with aplomb, but I had a difficult time just walking on the slippery path down to the creek. There were some other visitors enjoying the cool waters and a few attempting to dive, jump or slide down the rocks into the larger pool.
Being from the Pacific Northwest and a long-time hiker and backpacker, I’m used to seeing beautiful areas and water features. The cataracts did not impress. You had to pay to get into them as you have to pay to get into most features in the area, including the nearby Ballena National Parque. It was to this other feature that we ventured, but were unable to reach the famous Whale’s Tail, a reef-like structure far out from the beach which is often cut-off by high tides. The waters were too high this time as well, as they were for most of our stay, yet we walked out to a depth of over the knee with waves coming in from both sides and spraying us with salt water. Using some discretion in order to save our cameras, we chose to return to the main beach. The area is popular with the locals, too, who wait until after the ticket office is formally closed!
A lesson learned in Costa Rica… don’t pay the full price until AFTER you arrive at your destination or the trip is done. Our taxi driver never fulfilled her end of the bargain and finishing up taking us to the agreed upon destinations. Most drivers are dependable… but use only the official taxis which outside of San Jose are red in color and marked with a yellow triangle. The bus drivers are also very helpful and business-like.
Our temporary residence at the Hacienda was comfortable and we developed affectionate relationships with the Tico staff members, Christopher, Sonia and the chef, Omar. We were taken into the hearts of these wonderful people and feel like family. When Ticos accept you, you are family. No ifs, ands or buts. They are an open-hearted generous people.
During the remainder of our stay, we ended up going to a couple more nearby beaches, including Ventana and Tortuga, as well as a drive up the Coast Highway and back to the tourist destination “town” of Manuel Antonio. This “town” is strictly for tourists. From the looks of all the hostels, motels, hotels, cabinas, restaurants, surfer shops and tiny stores, it was clear that Manuel Antonio is NOT a Tico town. Nearby Quebos is the local Tico town, located downslope. Manuel Antonio is also a National Parque, requires an entrance fee and has lovely beaches and forest. We didn’t go into the park this time, not having the time to do so, but wandered around the steamy streets staring at all the Americanos who were wandering in bunches, either shepherded by a guide or on their own.
Costa Rica is a land of contrasts. There are the plush, gated residences and small communities of ex-pats in spotty areas, the tin-roofed Tico villages with their sprawling, haphazard neighbors filled with tiny colorful gardens, and busy little shopping areas. There are the huge ugly condominiums of Jaco… a popular tourist destination that the local bus driver warned us against. There are shiny office buildings and newer neighborhoods located in the suburbs around the complex, decrepit center of San Jose. There are shopping malls and mercados, neighborhoods fruterias (fruit stands) and Supermercados. There are expensive automobiles and rusty 4 x 4s (the only way to negotiate some of the rough secondary roads that are liberally spotted with huge rocks.
We saw acres and acres of oil palm groves, fields of bananas, alongside modest little farms with bananas, coconuts, a few mangos and other fruit trees. Most roofs sported the colorful Claro sign of the local satellite television company. Many houses had laundry hanging outside if the weather allowed as few Ticos can afford dryers. Electricity is expensive, run by ICE, the national supplier of electricity. Few Tico homes have air conditioning or large refrigerators either, and many do not have ovens, only stove-tops. Most Ticos are blessed to have abundant food, most grown or made locally, pure water, good air and an environment that improves every day. The modest country has made huge strides in putting aside land for nature reserves and national parks, as well as increasing the amount of trees by some 25% in the country over the last decade.
Yet despite any lack of material wealth, we found the Tico people to be welcoming and open-hearted and more cognizant of the values of the heart than most Americans. Every night we heard much laughter and music radiating from nearby Tico houses, modest on the outside, but filled with love inside. With their roosters and chickens, cats and dogs, horses and an occasional cow, the Tico people in the country-side live a rich and simple life, growing and living off of locally grown produce, including coconuts, bananas and sugar cane.
After our time in Ballena was ended, we returned via the Tracopa Line to San Jose, leaving from the brand new and impressive bus station located in Uvita. The trip was more strenuous than usual as Ruta 27 was closed due to some unknown problem perhaps as a result of the landslides common to the area. The bus was forced to follow the older 27, a windy, dark and sometimes narrow road which was full of cars, trucks and buses all taking the alternate route. We drove into San Jose an hour late, exhausted, slept a little in a strange little hotel and were taken to our various destinations the next day by our solicitous driver, Achiles, who acted as our local protector and guide during our short stay in San Jose.
On my return to North America, I must say it was nice to be able to sleep in my own bed and to be greeted by my cats, but I’m already thinking about venturing forth again on an adventure of the heart.
I will say that I felt more enveloped with love and affection by the gentle Tico people who became my friends and soul family than I have ever felt with my fellow Americans. The Ticos respect and admire sensitive people such as myself and my friend, Maria, and showed to us what a true privilege it is to be fully accepted by these generous people.
Fin (for now)
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