Having been to Cuba a couple of times, I suppose I thought Costa Rica might be the same. It’s not. Cuba is flat (mostly), and on an island. Costa Rica is the second-last (or second) country in Central America, and is far more mountainous than I would have thought. But the real difference goes beyond the surface. More on that in a moment.
Costa Rica is primarily known these days as being one of the most environmentally-friendly countries in the world. This intrigued me, but I was sceptical. In my experience, most so-called ecotourism seems to be, Hey let’s go look at the whales in all these power boats and disrupt their ecosystem, etc., etc. (The whole corporatization of Going Green is almost as bad as straight up polluting, but that’s another story.)
Well I figured out how CR stays green. Their idea of ecotourism is a building with a restaurant at the end of a terrible road on the top of a mountain. You give them your money. They point at a path. Start walking. Maybe a bridge or two. Some places have ziplines. Seriously, it’s that simple. And it’s quite beautiful.
One attraction (a restaurant at the end of a terrible road on top of a mountain - with a waterfall) was closed for eight months last year due to mudslides caused by heavy rains. The couple who own it, a Dutch fella with his Tica wife (the generic is Tico), had to just rebuild all their walkways and wait until the terrible mountain road re-opened.
And this, I think, is why Costa Rica looks good to stay green for a while anyway. It’s a tough place to do business. Nature is very strong there. Ticos refuse to live in the little flat land there is. (They let their cows wander around on it.) Most of Costa Rica’s four million souls live perched on mountainsides (and tops), like birds who missed the class on wise nest-building. Last year alone, 2600 homes were destroyed by mudslides, earthquakes and erupting volcanoes. Very hardy people indeed.
Give me the flatlands. I’m a prairie boy through and through. If it hadn’t been for the magic anti-nauseant patch my doctor prescribed, I would’ve had to stay home watching Buenos Dias Costa Rica. Did I mention the bad roads? Our host Richard (more on him in a moment) drove us around, Dukes of Hazzard-style, in an old Mercedes. We went somewhere different every day, on the worst roads I’ve ever seen. Some hills we could barely get up. Most bridges were one lane. Paving is uncommon, and gravel soon gets washed away by the near-constant rains. (Some areas get up to 18 feet of rain a year.) I was mostly fine until Richard took us on a road that had been washed out three times in 2010. It’s now “open”. (I use quotes for obvious reasons.) After twisting and turning up, up and away, we came over a rise where we were faced with another vehicle trying to come up the other side of the one-lane track. Richard started backing up. On top of the mountain. I looked out the window. And straight down. A hundred and fifty feet straight down. “Stop!”, we all yelled. I almost begged him to let me walk down the mountain on my wobbly legs. (The magic patch covers nausea only. Fear sold separately.) Did I mention that these roads don’t come with shoulders, guardrails, trees, shrubs or even a little stick with some orange tape on it? Just road. And then not road.
Our hosts in the remote town of Grecia were Polish ex-pats Richard and Mela. (I say remote because everything in Costa Rica is 30km away, but it takes a tense hour to get there.) Richard, who escaped the communists in Poland and then the economy in Texas, and Mela, built a home a few years ago, with suites for gringos. It’s cheap, and they’re lovely folks, and Richard will drive you anywhere in the country for a few bucks. If you’re thinking of a trip to CR, this is the skinny on the New York Times Travel Guide-featured Richard and Mela. (Five percent of Costa Rica’s population consists of transplanted Americans, Canadians and Europeans.)
The other thing that makes Costa Rica so much different than Cuba (you forgot I was talking about that, didn’t you?) is the local economy. Unlike Cuba, with its constant shortages, rationing, black market, grey market, etc., Costa Rica is very self-sufficient. A visit to the local super mercado is all it takes to see that CR produces almost everything it needs. I’m talking the basics of life here. All the fruits and vegetables you’d expect. (There is so much variation in the weather in this small country, that everything from passionfruit to potatoes can be grown.) Dos Pinos is their very own Sunrype, making delicious fruit drinks. Dos Pinos also has a large dairy. (Dairy is surprisingly big here for such a mountainous, jungleous [??] land. The people of the even higher highlands are famous for their palmetto cheese. Salty and rubbery. I hated it. But good for them.) Many of CR’s food products also get exported to the other countries in Central America. Costa Rica has enjoyed some of the benefits of trade without being ravaged by globalization. It seems very civilized.
Why do things seem so cool, calm and collected here, despite the unpredictable geography? Well geography plays a part here. Before airplane travel was the norm, Costa Rica was a little bit remote. In modern-ish history, the Ticos have been left alone by their neighbours because the country is a pain in the ass to invade. In 1948, the communist government was replaced and the military abolished. While they have good relations with the U.S., they’ve been left alone a bit. I guess the Americans felt they had other people to worry about in the region. Despite being bordered by war-torn Nicaragua and troubled Panama, Costa Rica has emerged unscathed.
And while Coke and Pepsi are here, the country has really survived a U.S. corporate onslaught. Costa Rica has enough resources to run its local economy, but there’s not too much the U.S. wants to take. (No oil, anyway.) There aren’t even any consumers. Ticos make $1.50 or $2 an hour. Not too much to sell them. There’s not even anywhere flat enough to build a Wal-Mart. (Okay, there’s one Wal-Mart somewhere, but I never saw it.) What American company would want to do business in a place where the rainouts last eight months? This is good news for the little guy, methinks.
Okay, winding down finally. A few fun facts about Costa Rica:
- Almost everyone here looks white. The Spanish killed most of the indians when they arrived in the 16th century. Winnipeg has more people that identify as indigenous than the whole nation of Costa Rica does.
- Chihuahuas are over-represented in the local canine gene pool. The abundance of these un-neutered little yappies has created a whole crop of very short, weird-looking dogs, that appear to be the product of unions with dobermans and other inappropriate sexual partners. They reminded me of the frankenstein baby/truck thing in Toy Story.
- Most of the cows in the mountain pastures that we saw seem to have their own personal geese following them around. The geese seem to like cow flies or cow poo, or something. Or maybe they just like cow company. (Picture of this in the photo set linked to below)
- Ticos seem obsessed with security. Even the smallest house is normally surrounded by a wall with a gate, or has bars on the windows. People who can’t afford a big brick wall, will use wood posts with barbed wire in between. (Posts may also be made out of concrete because of the rain.) Larger places or commercial buildings often have razor wire atop the walls. (It’s not that sharp. I touched one.) Very strange for such a friendly people. And with the exception of San Jose, which has the typical urban issues you would associate with a place that has almost two million people, it’s pretty quiet.
- Costa Rica’s part-libertarian, part-socialist government has reserved a quarter of the country as national parkland, but also allows the sale of all (what we would call) prescription drugs over the counter at pharmacies. Healthcare costs $50 a month (a lot for a local) and covers everything. Anyone can open a business in their home (restaurant, garage, whatever) as long as they’re within 40m of a main road. It’s illegal to own a beach in Costa Rica.
And that’s it. My long and uniformed ramble has come to a close. A lovely country and definitely worth a visit. Here are a (very) few cool photos of Costa Rica.