Dealing with RACSA
Getting Tickets to the Teatro Nacional
Casa de Los Pantys
Montezuma via the Golfito de Nicoya
Pablo the Crocodile
Braulio Carrillo National Park
Tostar and to eat in CR
Typically helpful Tica
Termales del Bosque and the Canopy Tour
Two Toucans, one too too
Liberia and a plethora of fruit
A near run-in with Immigration
Christmas in Costa Rica
Floored by the dance
Acrobats in the park
Stuffed on a bus
Sketching and snuggling in the park
Buses, buses, buses
El Casco Viejo
About the Panama Canal
Back to CR
David arrives from Panamá
Some of the many fruits and vegetables of CR
A Caribbean cruise, a little higher, a bit faster. It is the Airbus 300 taking us to Costa Rica from Miami. We are headed there because we want a pleasant winter, an inexpensive place to live, Costa Rica has less crime than Puerto Rico and most large U.S. cities, and Susan has a contact that helped us find a large, attractive house at an excellent price.
Some 165 miles north of San Jose’s airport, land comes into focus though occasional rips in the clouds. Below is desolation, where curvy rivers wander through mountainous wilderness. Immigration and customs are hassle free. On the immigration (migración) card you have to affirm that you are just arriving to San Jose or have been out of the country for at least 72 hours. This confirms part of what I was told by the consulate in Chicago: 90 days no hassle, after that you have to leave the country for at least 72 hours.
Rain is pelting the airport as we search the 6:30 p.m. darkness for Sylvia’s sister, Ester. (Note: CR is in the same time zone as the Central time zone in the U.S. except they do not employ daylight savings time. So during the summer the time is one hour behind Central. In the winter I think it will be the same. The flight here took three hours, not two as we thought.) The car is just a few feet away, but she offers to get it and pick us up at the curb. One look at the traffic and we decide to make the mad dash. Well, dash is not the word, given that Peg and I are loaded down with Big Black, our experienced high roller bag from our European jaunt, her carpet bag, a sack full of El Cheapo Bourbon in plastic bottles, and books galore. We are ready for a siege, but not a dash in the rain. The Honda station wagon is barely large enough for us all, and its defrosting capacity is not adequate for the humidity and our warm breath simultaneously. But the trusty rag does the job.
This is Español time for me since Ester speaks very little English. Our hostess tells us that Heredia is about 30 minutes away. I ask her why it takes that long to go 9 kilometers. She says that the roads are terrible. There are lots of potholes and there are only two lanes.
“The government does not have the money to make repairs?” I ask.
“No, because the money is stolen before anyone gets a chance to use it for the roads. Typical Costa Rica!” The car, she explains, is not hers. She seems unsure of the manual transmission as we make our way in moderate traffic. By the time we reach Heredia, she is moving along smoothly, but we are not, as ruts and potholes worsen when we are within the city limits.
“They are replacing all or most of the city’s water pipes. The water comes from the mountains and is very good. But they can’t seem to get these projects done. The roads are a mess all the time.”
After a few major jolts and some long lines of traffic, we reached our abode that will serve us for somewhere between thirty minutes and four months. I am uncertain about how long because Costa Rica is a land for those who appreciate the great out-of-doors. That’s me far more than it is Peg. I fear that Peg will get bored and will want to leave unless she can find things to do, like learn Spanish. In fact, I may find myself in the same boat, given then I would not want to remain constantly in camping or cheap hotel mode. This is especially so given fairly stiff entrance fees into the marvelous national parks and reserves.
As we were told, the house is large, easily 2800 square feet not including the garage. Downstairs there is a large living room with two seating areas, kitchen with breakfast nook, formal, raised dining room, an office, a half-bath. Also another bathroom in the back, with shower (for the servants, we are told). There are two storage rooms as well, which hold a large sink and a washer with room for a pony. Up the staircase above the interior garden are four bedrooms off a sizable landing that has a couch in case you get tired after the brief climb up. The master bedroom is about 20′ x 20′. The bathroom is proportionately enormous. The other bedrooms are about 12 x 10 with lots of built in closets.
Ester shows us about, joined by José. He is the family’s Mr. Fix It. He is here with a tool box to help with any problem that may arise. We find a few. There is no hot water at all and the hot water faucet in the kitchen does not yield any water at all. We found the breaker box. Now, here they call a breaker box “una caja breaker.” I could not suppress a chuckle at this, for here too they mix English and Spanish at times. The water heater was recently replaced, according to Sylvia, and it looked new, but we could find no signs of life.
Not long afterwards, I tried the hot water to see if there was any sign that the heater was working and just too quiet to hear and too cool still to detect heat from the pipes. No water at all. José concluded that the water pipe crews had cut off the water. Ester called and confirmed. The water would be off for a few hours.
The house had not been lived in for three years, contrary to our impression that the owner had been living in it until recently. It was clean but very empty. The Home Owner left just bare bones furnishings, although the kitchen was adequate. The beds were another problem. Mildew had attacked some of the mattresses, and they are too soft for comfort. We moved some to the floor, found the one good one, and then went for a snack. Our friendly and helpful hostess went home to San José, about thirty minutes away.
José took us to a little place nearby for coffee. The cafe is completely roofed but the front is open air. There are attractive seats and a large menu of non-alcoholic drinks including many fruit mixtures, coffee and various meals or snacks. The coffee is rich, flavorful. It ought to be fresh. There are coffee farms within a stone’s throw. The coffee’s taste made it feel good to be back in a Spanish country.
The day closes with Peg and Susan worried about the lack of water, and incredulous that in Costa Rica, kitchens do not have running hot water. How can it be?
We be spoiled!
Ok. I know it’s 5 a.m. But my body thinks it’s 7 a.m. and time to buggy! Dawn slams through the blinds. Coffee awaits below because José took us shopping last night where we loaded up on heavy items and some necessities. The store’s name is Mas y Menos (More and Less) and is now owned by Mexicans. José said that there is a lot of foreign ownership in CR.
Found the coffee pot, a percolator. Finally found the electric cord. OK so far. Put in the water and coffee and I hear it rumbling. The water gets hot and then, nothing. No perking. Gotta boil water on the stove and pour it through the coffee in the percolator’s strainer.
If you can’t improvise and make-do, you would not enjoy our life style.
José arrives at 9 a.m. as promised. We are going to buy some foam and maybe build a platform for one of the beds. Ester works in her family’s antique store a block away. There we find a few mattresses and end up having to buy only one piece of foam. To make this purchase, we climb the mountain toward one of the volcanos. José points out the sites. I think he shows us two inactive volcanoes, one just above us in the clouds. We pass coffee fields thick with trees. December is harvest time, says José.
He answers my questions about local practices and customs:
Between him and Ester, I have learned that “tú” (familiar form of the conjugated verb) is reserved for close friends. These friendships take time to form. The word “tú” in verbs has been replaced by “vos.”
The weather pattern for this time of year (at least) is clear mornings, rain the rest of the day. The dry season starts in November or December. It has been unusually hot this year.
There is a foam and mattress factory where they sell to the public. We buy a piece of foam the size of a double bed and about 4 inches thick. It cost 9000 colones, about $36 (265 per dollar). With a cover the foam costs twice as much. In the factory they pour a thick substance from barrels into machinery that makes foam. The foam comes out in big cubes, about 10′ x 10′ x 10′. A band saw reduces the foam to various thicknesses. The foams come in different colors, reflecting the quality, hardness and the like, I assume. At a large sewing machine, a worker sews on covers for the foam mattresses.
Getting back to the house is again slow, due to poor roads and congestion in Heredia. There are lots of one way streets that are crowded with two, sometimes three lanes of traffic as space permits. Vehicles are small and the fleet is in decent shape, although there are lots of older vehicles. José says that cars are very expensive here. A new Toyota or Volkswagen van, not the fancy or larger vans like those common in the US, sell for about 9 million colones. José drives an eight-passenger Toyota that is quite old. It has a manual transmission with a column mounted shifter. The vehicle is geared for mountain driving. José shifts going uphill at very low rpms without having to slip the clutch or cause the engine to labor hard, despite the slow, column shift arrangement. He locks every door and window each time he leaves the car. Everyone is very conscious of petty theft.
Lunch was at a restaurant at the edge of the university campus. Today is payday, José noted, and people have money (plata- silver) to spend and often spend it in the restaurants. The specials here won’t take much of it. For about $4 (including 10% service charge and 16% tax) you get a complete meal, chicken, fish, beef and the like, rice, black beans, mixed vegetable and a Coca-Cola. I had some tightly rolled, stuffed, deep-fried corn tacos, whipped black beans and a few pieces of beef on skewers. Very tasty. El Gran Papa, Calle 9 Av. 3 y 5, Heredia.
Later, Peg and Susan had a successful food shopping expedition. Susan was impressed with Peg’s Spanish, acquired from tapes, workbooks and living in Madrid for six months. Our first dinner at home here is some very tender chicken breasts from a nearby vendor’s tiny shop. He says he gets his chicken fresh daily. It tastes like it and he keeps it ice cold.
Each day so far has seen mostly sunny skies in the morning and rain in the afternoon, just as we have been told. Some showers have been heavy. The drainage system is effective, although you have to be careful when walking. The street storm sewers are uncovered, so breaking a leg or worse would not be difficult. The sidewalks have some dangerous holes in them, sometimes difficult to detect.
Buses use our street, Avenida 5, as a major thorough fare. This makes for diesel pollution and noise. Noise affects anyone trying to sleep, read or watch television in a front room. The rear rooms are quieter. You don’t notice any pollution or soot either.
There is a large food market just south of the main plaza. Butchers, fish mongers, fruit and vegetable stands, and a variety of small hard goods like watches and toys. The vegetables and fruits are generally inexpensive. The oranges and tangerines are green. They are ripe but not particularly tasty. Corn on the cob we tried seemed better suited for cattle. The plantain was excellent. The peaches we saw were from California, hard as a rock. The cantaloupe is ready to be tested. Meat products are not a pleasant site for the squeamish. The sausage does not interest me, as opposed to my experience in Spain.
10/18-19/98 (Sunday and Monday)
Our landlady left us a television and a vcr. I finally attached the vcr. After I selected the autoprogram feature, I found that we receive CNN and other Fox programming. This includes Sunday football and the World Series. I have mixed feelings about this service. A certain amount of isolation from U.S. news is a good thing, and necessary to give you the feeling that you are no longer at home. At least it is CNN and not Chatty Cathy does the news.
The cool temperatures, low sixties to high seventies F, are a great relief.
Since today is Sunday, we expected most stores to be closed. Many are open, although the large food market referred to above is closed. In one store, we bought some kitchen utensils. In this and some other shops, a sales clerk helps you find what you want. Then she (all women so far) writes up a slip and takes you to the cash register. This service is excellent, saving you time and trouble, and the prices are very reasonable, about what you would expect at a WalMart.
After checking with the local internet cafe (Central America Online) and a computer parts store, one of several close to us, I determined that you have to get internet access from RACSA. This is a company that holds a monopoly on internet access in CR, They also provide cellular service, but I do not know if that service is a monopoly also. You must go to San Jose to sign up for the service. I think that this applies to everyone in the country, not just foreigners.
San Jose is just 11 kilometers from Heredia. The bus stop is near our front door. There are two buses, ‘directo’ or ‘normal’. Directo means you make no stops between Heredia and downtown San Jose. We got on a normal. The traffic is thick so I don’t think that which bus you choose makes much difference. It costs .90 colones (about $.30).
San Jose and Heredia melt into one another. Development extends from one end of the valley, where San Jose sits, to the slopes of the other, where Heredia rests. An angry, fast, dangerous looking muddy stream crosses under the road along the way, making a sharp turn in its deep gully. At the turn is an enormous, luxurious residence with marvelously landscaped grounds.
The bus drops us about five blocks from RACSA. After a wait of about thirty minutes, I give the clerk our basic data, plus a copy of my passport and credit card as required. We will be billed directly to the credit card at the rate of $25 per month for 25 hours of access. There is no sign up charge, although one ad said there was. There is a deposit of 10-20,000 colones if you do not give them a credit card. RACSA provides no software. You just use the dialer that comes with windows. One company I called said they would install software for us to use, That would cost 10,000 colones ($40). We are given the access number for Heredia, the login name of our choice, and the password of their choice, which we can change, and a number for technical support. All changes in our account must be done by telephone, not via the net. This little transaction takes another 30 minutes. The clerk is interrupted constantly by telephone inquiries and other matters. At least we do not need a bank account, like we did in Spain when we got our telephone installed.
In Heredia and again in San Jose, we have tried to find an ATM that would accept our Mastercard designated debit card. Almost all banks and the their ATM’s will only process Visa. The Bank of San Jose, however, does process Mastercard. My card is a temporary replacement card while Susan’s is a permanent one. She can’t get her card to work, so we have to get a cash advance. This costs $5 for the first $625. You need a passport. They accepted Susan’s photocopy but only for $400. One person gets authorization from Mastercard. Then you have to get into another line to get the money. They often have two steps here. This is like the procedure in some stores we have been in, where one person takes your money while another takes the item from the clerk, packs it and then gives it to you. That often means standing in two lines, just like it did here.
The bus driver for our return trip was a pro at shifting his six speed transmission. Seldom have I seen this done faster. He winds his way through the traffic with great skill and daring. It is raining lightly in the dark streets when we get back to Heredia.
Dealing with RACSA
Technical support for RACSA has assisted me with the settings in Windows 95 to allow us to communicate with their servers.
(Dear reader: skip this unless you have nothing else to do whatsoever with your life; these notes are for my future reference).
In Network, TCP/IP, obtain ip address automatically; Gateway 22.214.171.124; DNS: enable, host same as login, domain rasca.co.cr; 126.96.36.199 and 188.8.131.52. username (same as login), stmp.rasca.co.cr, incoming 184.108.40.206. In Dial-Up Networking, select new connection, choose name, do not click “use country code,” configure, connection- select wait for dial tone then click advanced, use error control and flow control but nothing else, click OK then options, check bring up terminal window after dialing.
I had the following challenges in dealing with technical support (phone 287-0300): 1) Some support guys spoke very fast and went through the above settings very quickly 2) they seemed rushed 3) I had some difficulty with their pronunciations of English words, used in computing 4) our line has a lot of static 5) often their lines were busy 6) the first two who helped me did not deal with setting up the connection in Dial-Up Networking, they only dealt with the settings in Network. I tried to connect and found that the computer would not give me the terminal window. I called in with that problem, then they told me how to set up the Windows 95 dialer.
After that, I got into their server but several tries to enter the login name and password yielded only the message, “Authentication failed.” It was more than 24 hours since we signed up for the service. Therefore, we should be able to connect to their computer (server) by now. A call to technical support resulted in them telling me to call another number. The operator told me that my login was not yet entered into the computer. I should wait until tomorrow afternoon to log in.
That was my day until 5 p.m. Between that and the faulty functioning of my floppy drive, I had a good time with computing.
Neal is due to arrive today at 6:00 p.m. A call to American reveals that the flight is on time. Yesterday the employee at the bus stop told me that the bus to the airport takes about 30 minutes. A 5:00 p.m. we left the house, taking about ten minutes to get to the bus stop serving the airport, got on a bus right away (they come every 15 minutes or so), and arrived at the airport at 5:40 p.m. Cost: 85 colones ($.30 ). What a deal. Fairly new bus, very crowded since it was rush hour. You got on without paying, then an assistant came down the aisle to collect.
Neal arrived safely. He and I hauled his large, heavy bag filled with sheets and other household items we needed here, oh, and a few large bottles of bourbon in plastic bottles. Too bad I get headaches from alcohol. Or is it? The bag fit behind the back seat, where the assistant in the previous bus told me to put any large bags. He also told me that the bus would not be as crowded on the way back. He was right.
Another journey or two to the central market. At a spice stand we bought what we needed in bulk. Lots of choices, albeit short on the curry spices. Well, darn.
Una tormenta tropical (tropical storm) named Mitch is brewing off the Costa Rican coast, bringing some heavy rains and lots of cloud cover through Sunday, according to the local news, echoed by the Tico Times (English language paper). The storm is in the Caribbean but the main impact in Costa Rica is probably on the Pacific coast. The authorities are advising people in low-lying areas to prepare to evacuate. The storm is expected to reach hurricane strength in the next few days.
In the afternoon, I am at last successful in getting logged onto the net via RACSA. I get lots of busy signals, some connections as low as 2400 bps with a high so far of 16,000 bps. Disconnections are frequent. But it works eventually. We can connect to https (the ‘s’ stands for secure, and you need that connection to access our financial accounts). In France, we were not able to make that connection, in Spain we were.
We set up Neal and Susan’s computer for access via RACSA. We got it right the first time! Now we have the problem of how to deal with incoming mail. If we both use the RASCA address, the mail for S&N with mixed with ours. I do not mind that too much, but others seem to. For another $25, we could get another account, but that seems wasteful to me and unnecessary. If we were short of time and long on money, it would be a different matter.
I can have IBM forward my mail to hotmail, and read my mail from there. I learned how to change “Reply to” in Navigator so that if people do use the reply function, the mail will go to our ibm.net address and from there to hotmail. The disadvantage is that I cannot read offline unless I copy and paste each message to a word processor and then log off. This is ok by me but Peg does not like this arrangement.
One of the joys of having four of us here is cooking. Neal and Peg are excellent and I can do a dish or two. Tonight we cooked up some of the good local vegetables to go with roasted chicken breasts. The chicken was very fresh and tender.
Our stove is a challenge. The top is warped, meaning that things placed on the right front burner leans heavily to the left. The oven works but offers only two temperatures on the top burner, 140c and 210c, and two on the bottom, 210c and 300c. Neal thinks that these are simply marks and that the temperature adjuster is a rheostat. Otherwise, the kitchen is large and reasonably well provisioned.
Our search for a grill (parilla; note that parilla is pronounced in standard fashion, like llama, not with the “j” sound as in “journal” as I heard used in Argentina) produced excellent results. For 3900 (about $15) we got a heavily built iron unit on legs. The charcoal here is soft. It lights easily but burns away quickly. A 5 pound bag costs about $.75.
Rains hit us hard in the afternoons and the morning shows no sun. We spend much of the time indoors. There is always much cleaning to do. Buses produce soot, and since they pass by so close to us, we get more than our fair share of it. The tile floors need frequent sweeping and mopping. I imagine that now and again you’ll have to have some scrub the walls. Windows? That would be a never ending task.
Maria Esther is Sylia’s sister, who owns our house. She told me that if I needed Jose, to call her or him directly. I am guessing that she or Sylvia pays him, and we do not get billed for it. He came over today to get a piece of plywood for one of the beds. He is typically Tico, it seems, very friendly and easy to deal with. José brought his daughter with him. Angelina, I think her name is, is one of six children, four of which are his. Apparently his wife had two others prior to marrying him. Our little task is completed in a short period.
Fargo came by to meet us and visit a little. Fargo came here 25 years ago as a Peace Corps volunteer and never returned to live in the U.S. She married into Sylvia’s family. She is the one who helped us find this house. She answered my numerous questions.
Fargo affirmed that connecting to RACSA can be a challenge. They do not have enough servers and the telephone lines are not always good. Domestic calls are fairly cheap. Later, I called the ICE, the telephone company, and after getting a busy signal or two, found out that calls to San Jose from here are charged at 30 second intervals at the rate of 25 colones (1.5 cents for 30 seconds or 3 cents per minute).
Steady rain keeps us all indoors. Between the rain and the pollution, I have not felt like walking about much. I continue to do the exercise routine I learned at the YMCA in downtown Dallas.
The rains have let up some and we take just our second outing out of Heredia. Sarchi is our destination. It is about 40 miles away. You take the bus to Alajuela. That takes about an hour. It is the same bus that goes to the airport. From there another bus goes to Sarchi.
Alajuela is slightly lower in altitude than Heredia, the former at 920 meters, the latter around 1150. Where there are about 70,000 in Heredia, Alajuela and its surrounds contain about 172,000. I think they have all the later have come to the bus station today, perhaps to go somewhere, perhaps to dig more potholes. Maybe that’s how the potholes got so big.
The bus driver does not forget to tell us when to get off to get the bus to go to Sarchi. Easy. It’s the last stop and we have to get off. He could have told me that when I asked him where to get off. Too busy thinking about Jesus, perhaps, or so all the symbols and sayings on plastered on the dashboard would suggest.
We had a light snack near the bus station. Susan pointed to someone’s plate and asked what it was. “A hot dog,” said the clerk. She must wonder why a norteamericana would need to ask this question. Take a look at the plate and you can see why. The hot dog is covered by a mound of raw cabbage and some mayonnaise. The taco comes the same way. Underneath all the topping is a freshly made, tightly rolled, deep fried corn tortilla filled with beef. I had the taco and it was very good and only about $.50. Neal had the national dish: Gallo pinto, rice and beans. In this case, he got had the rice and beans with scrambled eggs, but you can also get them fried. Like most Costa Rican cuisine, Gallo pinto is lightly spiced, not hot. But always nearby are bottles of tabasco or other hot sauces for people like me.
The smooth, windy road to Sarchi takes us through some stunning mountainous countryside. Jurassic Park could have been filmed in this area I would be surprised. There are misty mountains in the distance. Trees on nearby hills sometimes are sprinkled with the dust of this same mist, making them look freshly powdered with snow. Tropical plants gush up everywhere. Mountain streams dash downhill in a muddy frenzy as we pass over one lane bridges. Steep-sided gullies hide jurassic creatures hidden like Lochnessian secrets, waiting for the most dramatic moment before they lunge at the bus windows, pulling screaming brats from the arms of wailing mothers.
Speaking of brats, there don’t seem to be many here. The kids behave beautifully in public. Even the punky looking ones are very mild imitators of U.S. punks.
Sarchi is an hour and 1/2 from Alajuela. So it takes two and 1/2 hours to go about 40 miles. That does not include about a twenty minute layover in Alajuela. Sarchi is known for its brightly wagons. In days gone by, these were pulled by animals. Now they are mainly child sized, good for decoration and little else, but they are attractively decorated. In one shop, the artists were painting the wagons on the shop floor as we wandered about. Other decorative objects, houses, and businesses are sometimes similarly decorated. Perhaps most impressive is the wooded furniture, displaying a high grade of craftsmanship at low prices compared to what we would have to pay in the U.S. I would be proud to own any of the examples I saw. The smaller wooden objects, candlesticks, bowls and the like, were all similarly impressive. I also liked the wooden and leather rocking chairs, as they were attractively carved.
From the window of the shop we visited there is a beautiful view of the small valley and steep hills nearby. There are comfortable looking new chairs on the veranda from which the scene spreads before the viewer. The air is clean, a welcome relief from diesel and gasoline fumes.
We lunched at a very good seafood restaurant. Peggy’s filet is stacked with garlic that has been beautifully browned. Neal is sticking with the Gallo pinto. I try a quesadilla, which is two corn tortillas golden brown from the pan fry and thick with cheese. I liked with and without the green, slightly sweet hot sauce.
A woman at the bus stop tells us that the best way to get to Heredia via the bus is the way we came. Going by way of San Jose, although part of it is via the autopista (highway), would not save any time. To me it does not matter as long as I can still enjoy the countryside in the fading light, for by 6 p.m. it will be dark. Indeed we make it to Alajuela in the sun’s waning moments, manage to find the bus to Heredia just as it was about to load.
The bus journey, snack and lunch came to about 5000 colones, a little under $20 for two. We bought a Tico cookbook.
Tuesday morning’s sunshine got me out and walking. I have decided to make a curry and need to see Don Spice in the Mercado Municipal. That evening, a spicy chicken curry light up the evening.
Wednesday we went out for breakfast, walking in the rain from Mitch that is lashing Nicaragua several hundred miles north. Gallo pinto and eggs for everyone except me. I stuck to the coffee but the chuletas (pork cutlets)looked real good, as did the mango and papaya shakes. Another bargain.
In restaurants, they add 10% for service and about 16% for tax. The service has been excellent everywhere, although the 10% is automatic. When Neal asked for black pepper this morning at breakfast, he got a plate with a cayenne and salt mixture on it. A few minutes later, the waiter brought a black pepper container. It had never been opened. They must have sent someone to the nearby supermarket to get it for him.
Moravia is about the same distance from San José as Heredia, but it is northeast not northwest, as is Heredia. To get there by bus, you have to go to San Jose and transfer. The journey would require about an hour and 1/2, allowing time for connections and traffic. Therefore, we went by cab. The drive there took us through several small towns among them San Pablo and Tibias. (2000 for all four of us, about $8.00)
Moravia was once the center of the coffee fincas (plantations or properties) in the area. It is also called San Vicente de Moravia or just San Vicente on some maps. It has many shops that live for the tourist trade. There are good quality purses, wooden items, leather goods such as belts, knick-knacks and coffee. At one shop, the wooden items were of particularly high quality. Little boxes and business card holders join wooden bowls and utensils on the attractive shelves. On the roof two macaws attract the eye, each about 20′ tall and realistically painted.
Outdoors is a cafe, offering the usual fruit drinks and other beverages. The banana trees just inches away were full of ripe fruit, and with the other flora made a very pretty setting. A macaw squawked in the cage. He is about 40 years old, according to the shopkeeper.
The church on the town square was full of children. They sat beneath the artistically painted ceiling. The priest indoctrinated them while they were held in check by the attending adults.
We found a bar/restaurant on a nearby street. I think it was called ‘Bar Hubert.’ They offered “casados” for lunch. These are combination plates. Places serving casados usually offer a choice of beef, chicken and fish with your meal. Everything else is the same on each plate. About 15 minutes after ordering, the waitress brought out plates with the meat of choice, some fried potatoes, potato salad, lettuce salad, rice, beans and a crisply fried egg. That set each of us back all of 600, plus 250 for an ice cold beer. The beef was only fair but the accompanying sides were excellent.
After we ate, a man came up to me. He was empoverished in appearance, his shoes without laces, his pants and shirt dirty and worn. He did not smell like he had been drinking but acted it. I could not understand much, but he said he was a mestizo, part Spanish and part native. He said something about being “corto.” This means short but I think that Emilia told me that it also means ‘not being all there.’ I could not figure out if he was insulting me or talking about himself. Two women looking at him were shaking their head, in pity or disgust, I could not tell.
We took the bus to San José. Along the way and since the weather was holding clear, we could see the nearby mountains for the first time. The area around San José is mountainous, and has experienced earthquakes, but we have not seen much of the former nor felt the latter.
For the past several days, the song whose lyrics ask, “Do you know the way to San José?” have been coming to my mind and the connected whistling lips. It came again as the driver of the BlueBird, whose plaque reports it is made in Central America, whizzed around corners and through the traffic. We came in from the side opposite from which the Heredia bus enters, giving us a new view of town.
Crowds jam the sidewalks and streets in this section of the city as they do on the part we have already visited. Traffic snarls. Sidewalks look like they have been bombed, full of holes, some gaping and dangerous. The Spanish in the crowds far outnumber the mestizos and natives.
Getting Tickets to the Teatro Nacional
We make for the Teatro Nacional after disembarking. Part of the way is in a pedestrian zone, a welcome relief from the noise and fumes. The shops look to be better cared for and stocked with better merchandise than usual. Near the theater is the Oficina de Tourismo. They have a list of national bus routes. They do not have a copy to give us, but we take their only one and make a copy across the street. I make extras for them. We left our copy behind in error, which we did not discover until much later.
I asked for a schedule of concerts at the entrance to the Teatro Nacional. They had a list but no copies available for the public, and no prices. AT the box office there weren’t any programs nor did the clerk know what the tickets would cost. The pamphlets for November are not in yet.
The building is one of the most striking in San Jose. It was built between 1890-97 when coffee barrons added a tax on every bag of coffee to finance its construction. Marble and glass were imported from Italy and France. The theatre holds about 1000 people. The acoustics are said to be excellent, and the best seats for listening are in the cheapest section in the heights of the building. The national orchestra is supposed to be very good.
Along the way to a park and while still in the pedestrian zone, I heard a band playing. I followed the sound into a store selling cosmetics, perfumes and the like. The band included two people playing the same huge xylophone, a bass guitarist, and one man playing a gourd-like instrument. This instrument made a scratchy sound, similar to a wash board but lighter, more subtle. I alone clapped for them when they finished. They were dressed in black pants with white shirts and looked as good as they sounded. The music was so loud that I doubt anyone could speak and be heard. This seems typical here, doing things that are self-defeating or incomplete in an important way. Here, you attract people into the store but for 5 or so minutes, you can’t hear well enough to buy anything!
Casa de Los Pantys
There is a small bar near the big cathedral that is undergoing renovations. The bar is across the street from the Casa de Los Pantys (!) in the underwear street. Shops offering all sorts of ‘ropa interior’, both ordinary and glamorous, display their wares to shoppers of all ages.
Peg and I shared a fruit drink made with guanabána and milk (250 colones). Very tasty, very sweet. I have not seen a guanabána yet.
In the evening, Susan prepared a casserole in inimitable (I hope) North Dakotan style, except there was no jello salad, thank God. Yucca, ground beef and cheese. No, they don’t have yucca in N.D. Yucca is a tuber and it takes like a potato, but creamier, and has 50% more carbohydrates. We have found some Chilean wine that is not so expensive, about 930. Wine is running at least 1300 here. That’s not really much, but living in France and Madrid, especially, has spoiled us. It’s half the price there for better stuff.
We went to a ferretería (hardware store) near the municipal market. The other day we bought a sturdy grill from them for 3900 colones, about $14.00. This place is crammed with goods. Dripping with goods, that’s a better way to put it. From the ceiling there are thousands of items hanging down like stalactites, snuggled so tightly that no air could move between them. On the walls, on the floors, in crooks and crannies, stuff is jammed. About ten people work here, including a floor walker. He shares an area about 3 meters x 3 meters (10’x10′) with as many customers as can jam in. He usually stands by the door. When someone looks interested, he invites them in, and points to the one of three counters appropriate for fulfilling the customer’s needs. The guy who gets what you want also takes your money. There is no room for a separate check-out. Quite a sight. Gary Bob says check it out!
This is Saturday and jillions of Ticos are in the market area. The streets are jammed with even more cars than normal and the buses filled as people from towns around do their weekly or monthly shopping in the big city.
Later in the afternoon Neal and I did some drawing in the main park. I noticed a few poor people walking without shoes. A band playing Andean folk music played nearby. They were far from the best I have heard. I played my casette tape in the evening and the contrast in quality was clear.
A half block from our house is a video rental shop. I registered as a member and rented a video for 500 colones. Rentals are 200 per day. Almost all the tapes are subtitled in Spanish.
Montezuma via the Golfito de Nicoya
From Heredia it took us 12 hours to get to Montezuma, on the southern coast of the Peninsula Nocoya. The bus from San Jose west to the port town of Puntarenas was a slow 2 hours and forty five-minute ride through the heavily vegetated mountains. The view of the coast helped distract from the slowness of the route. We arrived in Puntarenas just fifteen minutes after the boat left. The next boat was to depart at 2:00 p.m. While we waited, we had excellent casados with fish as the protein source, each costing a few dollars. The owner is a Spanish-looking woman in her late 30’s or early 40’s. There is a w.c. with a shower, for some reason, and they stand predominantly in the dining area behind a half-height partition.
On the side of town opposite the ferry dock is a new pier, financed by the Taiwanese government, or so we heard and read. To it is tied a ship carrying a huge load of tourists. On the street next to the dock street vendors sell typical tourist items. Two men skillfully hammer a xylophone, filling the air with bright and cheerful sounds. A passenger told us they were warned not to venture into town. We told them it was not pretty but was safe, at least during the day. Another made it clear that she did not want to see any poverty, preferring to confine herself to the tiny strip of vendors or to the boat. Her impression of Costa Rica will be quite distorted. The next day they are going through the Panama Canal, afterwards to gather more distorted impressions of the people populating the Caribbean.
At the dock used for the boats to Peninsula Nicoya, the strong smell of fish combined with strong odors from the butcher’s shop to make a powerful witches brew. Two men dumped a load of fish parts directly into the water. Many birds had gathered for the feast. Dozens of men walked about without shoes and shirts, looking poor, unemployed, unwashed.
The crossing of the Golfito de Nicoya has me wishing to buy another boat, for this is an ideal area for one. The water is smooth and the skies are clear; Peg and I can easily see Peninsula de Nicoya in the distance. There are islands and coves that seem to provide excellent shelters for overnight stays. The Pacific is not far away, allowing easy resumption of the route north or south along the coast.
Near land it began to rain. To shield us from the rain, they unfurled canvas covers for the open sides of the boat. They put the new furniture they had loaded onto the open deck under the roof, blocking an aisle on the top deck. This wooded wooden boat needed a coat of paint. It has a fine sounding engine but passenger accommodations are crude, consisting only of wooden benches, some shielded from the elements.
The bus awaited us at the dock near the town of Paquera. It carried us over the steep, rough roads often at a crawl when the driver used granny gear to inch us over deep holes or ruts. The scenery is stunningly beautiful, lush, tropical vegetation often surrounding us in a canopy. About two hours later, in the darkness, we arrived in Montezuma. Ours was the first bus to make it all the way since Hurricane Mitch dumped his mighty load.
Montezuma is tiny, about three blocks long by two blocks wide. La Aurora, our hotel ($20) is about 50 yards from the shore, although the trees block both the sound and the sight of any water. The room has a cold water shower. That matters little here for the temperature is in the mid-80’s most of the year. In March or April, it gets into the 90’s. There is mosquito netting although it is not necessary during our visit. Rich, black coffee is served every morning. You get the milk out of the rusty refrigerator near the ‘lobby.’ You sit outdoors but under a roof as you sip.
Palms and coconut and other trees cover the park in front of the hotel. Walk down the path and onto the sidewalk, and within 30 seconds you are in ‘downtown’ Montezuma. There are two tour providers, several restaurants and bars, assorted tee shirt/souvenir shops and a bakery or two. On the road heading west toward Cabo Blanco (the White Cape) there are more some fancy and some not so fancy hotels, restaurants and housing for the locals. Two beaches adjoin downtown. Palms and other trees line both. Only one is used for swimming, the other for tour boats taking visitors to Isla Tortuga to swim and snorkel. From two women who went I heard that the snorkeling was not good.
There are many other beaches in the area. Peg and I went to one where a line of rocks formed a bubbly pool in the surf. There we saw some tadpoles, at least I think that’s what they were. They were clinging to the rocks in the surf. Nearby a fresh water stream makes its way through the sand. A woman is sunning herself in the buff. Behind her the hills rise steeply into the low the mountains.
On the edge of town is a waterfall where you can swim in the cool fresh water. Surrounded by intense vegetation, we climbed the short distance from the road, crossed a few slippery rocks and sat on the rocks along the edge of the stream. I swam to the falls, maybe 20′ away, and sat where the refreshing water could massage my back.
Peg was uncomfortable with the temperature and humidity and returned to Heredia. I felt great, with the temperature no higher than about 30c or 86 F, so I went to Cabo Blanco. This is the first area set aside as a reserve in Costa Rica (1963). Then it was privately owned and operated but the owners donated it to the government even before CR established its park system. Until the late 1980’s, no visitors were allowed. Information at the ranger station is skimpy but the ranger tells me that you need to wear good shoes and bring food and water for the 4.2K hike. Trails (there are only two) are well marked, he said, so getting lost is not a problem. The literature he gave out was the same useless material available in Montezuma and Heredia.
The trail is arduous, made more so by the recent rains that left my shoes well mucked. Hills are steep. Several times I found myself inches off the ground as I ascended, huffing and puffing from the effort. The paths are indeed well-marked but crude: 1) littered with rocks where the path followed an old stream bed; 2) downed trees blocked the path, too high to climb over comfortably, too low to pass under easily. 3) you have to ford a stream crossing on half-submerged, slippery rocks. I was having a great time, challenged just enough. Amazingly I was not very hot considering how much effort I was having to put forth.
The forest is tall, fairly dense, filled with birds and large blue butterflies. Howler monkeys bark loudly, as they did this morning around 6 a.m. very close to our hotel room; I thought then they were barking dogs. I was alone on the trail most of the way, but caught up with a young Brit and walked with him the last two kilometers down the mountain to the beach. The beach has beautiful white sand.
About a dozen hikers sat in the shade or reclined on the beach. We were startled by an iguana, about 3′ from head to tail, begging for handouts. Crabs surround backpacks left sitting on the beach. It looked like they were trying to open them. Pelicans and other birds fished extensively just a few yards offshore.
To the west there was a row of rocks near the shore and I sat in the calmer waters behind them, cooling off in the pleasant saltwater. The vast expanse of the Pacific is before me. Tales of beauty and hardship share my thoughts as I gazed upon the rolling waves.
The minibus dropped us off at the Terminal Caribe, where at 10:00 a.m. we boarded the new Mercedes headed for Sixaola, the town on the Panama border. About eight people stood the entire 3+ hours, including some who got off in Cahuita with us. Cahuita is a tiny town on the beach about 45 km from Limón. One end of town borders on a national park, a five minute walk from anywhere in Cahuita. It was in Limón where Columbus landed in 1502, I think. Isla Uvita, just off the coast and readily visible from the shore, is where he made landfall to “discover” the Rich Coast (Costa Rica).
Our hotel, Seeside (sic) Hotel aka Seaside Hotel, depending on which sign you read, is immediately on the water. In front, not more than 50′ from the rooms, the waves crash into a seawall that the HanHan, the owner, has constructed. Behind it there is a bubbly pool where his tiny daughter can play. While we were comfortably lounging in the pool, infant barracudas, a few clown fish, a kind of mollusk and other small creatures shared the surge that passed through the rocks. Shading us are tall palm trees, giant versions of vines like ones that I have grown in pots at home, and other trees and plants between us and the sea. A more charming spot I have seldom seen.
In the national park, we saw a tree sloth. They always hang upside down, so their face to us is like the back side of the moon, never visible from where we normally stand. There are many attractive and often large butterflies fluttering about. At the cape, a 4 km walk from our hotel, a group of spider or white-faced monkeys awaited us. There we snorkeled in the swift current and cloudy water while the monkeys tried to open my pack. They are fed by tour guides. There is a reef about 150 meters off shore, but no one went there, not even the boats with snorkeling groups in them.
We also saw howler monkeys. In a pool near Kelly’s Spanish Restaurant a crocodile living in the connected swamps hungrily eyed a french poodle, evidently Kelly’s dog. An iguana rests in the sun on a branch above the pool. Lots of birds. There are toucans and parrots but we saw only pets.
Fresh, very fresh fruit: water melon, papaya, pineapple, banana. They mix the fruit with water or milk. Fruit salad, plain or with yogurt. The fish is excellent. The best place was the cheapest, about $3.50 for a casado (a combination plate); the fish was pan fried in lots of garlic. Another place offered fish and meat for $14. Good but not better.
Most people speak English. There is a small contingent of Rastafarians, including one who tried to earn a commission by walking with us as we neared the See Side Hotel. We had chosen that hotel out of the book. There was a group of young men smoking pot next to a restaurant where we ate lunch. Dogs, a few cats, roosters and hens and chicks, and occasionally a horse or two walk about town. Han Han is a rastafarian also.
Our ride was to leave at 8:00 a.m. so we arrived at a good place for breakfast at 7:00. The owner, from Montreal, was just opening and he asked us to give him ten minutes while he got ready. At 7:40 we finally got some coffee. At 7:50 he still had not asked for our order so I asked the helper to make me a fruit salad with yogurt. He did. Then the owner asked if anyone wanted anything. It was almost too late.
The small boat, 8 people maximum, takes 3.5 hours and $50 to get to Tortuguero, winding through canals and rivers. We stop to look at birds and reptiles along the way. The captain’s sharp eyes could pick out the animals that the rest of us could see only after very careful looking. The banks are lined with various palms, coconut, some canes and a wide variety of other plants.
In Tortuguero, we stayed in Cabinas Tortuguero, clean rooms, hot water (none in most of the hotels in Cahuita), shower and toilet in the room ($36 including dinner and breakfast). The owner of our hotel is a 48 year old Italian man married to a very lovely Nicaraguan woman who also works in the local school. He has had the hotel for two years. He says that the locals do not want to spend any money on community areas. They need to. There are piles of trash in various places. He says that they have no community spirit and are only interested in the very short term. They do not want to work. He is getting tired of dealing with them.
In the afternoon we went to the Caribbean Conservation Corporation. The visitor center video and exhibits in English or Spanish explain the efforts made on behalf of the sea turtles, of which three species nest on the nearby beaches: green, loggerhead and hawksbill.
The CCC and the efforts to improve the condition of the sea turtle population owe their existence to Professor Carr, from the University of Florida, I think. In the mid 1950’s he noted the loss of population and destruction of habitat and began organizing rescue efforts. Now many countries join to reduce the effect of pollution, limit the taking of eggs and eliminate hunting of the turtles.
Pablo the Crocodile
Thursday a.m. Susan and I went on a canoe tour through Tortuguero National Park. Monkeys by the 100’s. One group, white-faced I think, saw us coming, they began throwing fruit, nuts and branches at us. They were lousy shots. Then something frightened them, a predator, say a jaguar or snake. They crossed the stream by dropping about 40 feet (12 meters) from a branch on one side of the creek. They landed on another not more than 10 feet from us on the other side of the creek. Each monkey spread his arms and legs, dropping at great speed. Using their tails and all four limbs, they grabbed a tiny limb, maybe an inch around, and scampered away. Such athletes! Downstream a bit, a mother with baby clinging tightly to her walked across the stream, branch to branch, followed by some other younger members of the group.
Later in the woods we passed a tiny yellow venomous snake. They normally sit on yellow leaves and wait for hummingbirds and other prey. Our guide said that if you are bit by the snake, you have about an hour to live unless you get medical treatment.
There are jaguars and another kind of cat, but both are rarely seen. Their tracks are sometimes evident but we see neither on our walk in the woods.
Thousands of birds of many species, some living with the snakes on the water lily. Iguanas on the trees. Jesus Christ lizards, that walk upon the water.
We meet Pablo the crocodile. He is easily recognized, for he has no tail. Ray, our guide, tells us that Pablo’s tail was cut off when he was young. This is still a common practice in villages a few hours from Tortuguero. The people love to eat the tails but throw the rest of the animal back. Paul is the only one he knows of who has survived without a tail. Paul is now about 4′ long. All the locals know him.
Ray shows us beautiful mushrooms and the prints of a 200 kilo tapir, raccoons and other small animals. We taste a flower that smells and tastes like a perfume. He shows us seeds, and the intoxicating leaf that the sloths feed on which make them move so slowly. On these leafs ants live. When an animal tries to eat the leaf, they crush ants that smell and taste horribly. The ants get water from the stem of the plant in exchange for their efforts.
Ray Brown’s first language is Spanish. He speaks English well but does not feel entirely comfortable with his level of mastery. He is a lot better than he seems to think. But he loves to talk to me in Spanish, which is clear and free from most strictly local expressions and pronunciations. Ray says that you have to be licensed to be a guide. He went to San Jose for course work, the exam and for English studies. He is one of eight children. His father came here from Nicaragua in 1945 to work for a lumber company. When the company went out of business, they gave him a piece of land on the nearby mountainside. The view was wonderful and he stayed to continue to raise his family. Ray is the only child to remain in the tiny town of Tortuguero. He says he never tires of seeing monkeys flying through the air, of seeing Paul, the snakes, the red frog, the butterflies, the birds. Ray loves the clean, fresh air. The water, the boats. Why suffer pollution and risk attack in San Jose or other big cities in the world when you can have this, he asks.
Next year, he said, you can visit the park only by canoe. The propellers kill the young crocodiles and manatees.
The Tortuguero River, I think it is called, runs through the park. It is fresh water for the first two meters of depth. The rest is salt water. We were in places where the depth reached 40 meters! Thus, there are salt water fish in the river: marlin, sharks and others. There have been no shark attacks ever recorded, though kids swim in the river.
The park is filled with fascinating sights and sounds. I could spend more time there. A woman I met a few weeks ago in Montezuma came on the boat with us and is staying to volunteer. I think she is paying $10 per day for room and board.
Next day we take the little boat back to Limón. At the bus stop, there is a crowd of rough-looking people crowding around the tourists. As people buy bus tickets at a window, several obviously stare at the money and note what pocket it is stored in. Making the scene more ominous is the lack of lighting. Susan remarked that the whole town is light with a single 25 watt bulb.
Black women sell homemade ginger and other cakes on tables at the curb. Peg buys some and the ginger is hot, spicy. I buy an excellent meat empanada. Another that was supposed to contain cheese contains beans instead, and they are good also. Together these items plus some peanuts and raisens make up our Thanksgiving table, which we shared with many strangers on the packed bus.
Braulio Carrillo National Park
The route to San Jose passes through Braulio Carrillo National Park. Near Limón are many banana plantations and dozens of Chiquita Banana trucks. The bananas are covered with a blue plastic. The gentleman I asked told me that the plastic keeps the bugs off the fruit. At the nearby port, huge container ships are loaded only with Chiquita Banana trailers. That’s a lot a bananas.
The balance of the route is thick, tropical forest that the guide book terms a ‘montane rainforest’. The park was created when the modern highway (modern for CR, that is) was opened in the late 1980’s. In the 1940’s, CR was about 75% rain forest. Now it is about 25%. There was great controversy over the highway since it passed through vast rain forests. The compromise permitted only this road and set aside the rest for conservation.
Not only is the forest rich with vegetation and wildlife, it is also home to several volcanoes, not very active: Barva, Cacho Negro. Mammals include the jaguar, puma, ocelot, tapirs and sloths, as well as three species of monkeys.
Sometimes the road winds along deep gullies or valleys. The bus passes slows trucks, sometimes on hills and curves, making stops along the way for people to board or disembark. Houses along the way are sometimes little more than tin shacks, their tiny yellow bulbs glowing through the cracks. The climate is so mild that you really need little more than a shack. Here, outdoor living is quite comfortable. I wonder if they have running water and indoor plumbing. I think most of them do.
Three hours and 150 miles later, we are in San Jose, riding the jam-packed, bouncy micro bus back to Heredia.
After the thin mattress in Tortuguero, it’s a treat to sleep on our thick piece of foam. But I’d put up with a little discomfort to enjoy the many beauties of the tiny towns on the rich coast of the Caribbean and the marvels of the rain forests. It is for these that one comes to Costa Rica.
There is a street market every Saturday in Heredia and most towns of any size in CR. Sylvia, our landlord, suggested we go there for the best selection and prices. It is about a mile from our house, south of the Mercado Central. Entirely outdoors, there are two major rows extending about three hundred yards east and west. The stalls are loaded with papaya, mango, cantaloupe, watermelon, coconuts, star fruit, oranges, and many other fresh fruits including local lemons and limes. Many of these others I do not recognize, not even when I am given the name. There are yuccas, potatoes and other similar tubers whose name I do not know. Onions, garlic. It goes well beyond my knowledge of the vegetable kingdom to list all the fruits and vegetables. The spinach here takes long to cook, and the crop has been damaged by all the rain but there is still some to be found.
Pineapples cost about $.75 for a medium sized one. They are generally sweet, as are most of the fruits. Except the star fruit. I have not had one that wasn’t biter as an old tire soaked in vinegar for a year.
The first two vendors we bought from shortchanged us. We found their errors. No one else did so, so I think that these were errors.
There are vendors who walk around selling their wares. One was selling horsetail herb, which he says to take three times per day. It is for the kidneys. I later learned that it is a diuretic.
All the vendors chatter constantly. That combined with the usual din of the traffic makes for quite the roar. Now, in Costa Rica, where there is any room left over for additional noise, someone usually fills the gap. It can be horns, shouting or, as in most cases, music. Someone brings speakers the size of the Panama Canal, sets them up where they can drown out all conversation, cue up some salsa if you’re lucky, and then cranks up the volume. Loud enough so the Panamanians can hear as if they were here. Or maybe so the Nicaraguans can here. That’s it! They want the Nicaraguans to hear so they think that they are already in San Jose, will stop where they are and go no farther. Since the music is so loud, they will be well on their own side of the border. The Costa Ricans think that there are enough illegal immigrants from Nicaragua here already.
Here they call “las aguas,” the waters, instead of the standard “lluvia.” rain. It rains six to sixteen feet (two to four meters) per year! The rain does not usually come down heavily. More often it is gentle, quite often it falls as a mist. For those who romantisize walks in the rain, living here would be ideal, for often you can walk in the rain without getting very wet. Usually there is not much wind, so that umbrellas work well. They seem to have the storm drainage under control, so there are relatively few puddles.
Tostar and to eat in CR
Lunch. We ordered fruit salad, taco and a tostada. Tostada turned out to be toast, not those flat, crispy Mexican delights. It was on the same part of the menu with the tacos, which is why I was fooled. Seems like ‘tostar’ and related words give some English speakers fits. A friend gave a toast at a dinner in Spain. In his dictionary, the only word listed for ‘to toast’ was tostar. Another friend tried to write about making toast, but in his dictionary the only word listed was ‘brindar,’ which means to toast as in what you do at, say, a dinner. And now I joined the fun.
Generally, meals here are hearty and inexpensive. Even fish is inexpensive. The other evening, Peg and I went to Banco de Los Mariscos. It is famous all over CR for the seafood. It is in a small town north of Heredia, reachable in about forty-five minutes by bus. It was typically arranged, with comfortable seating and no windows. The most expensive thing on the menu was the shrimp. Lobster would be more but its out of season. A dinner costs $10 with large shrimp, $13 with jumbo shrimp, simply and deliciously prepared on the grill. A And yet people drive here from around the country!
Service and tax are normally included in the prices. If not, they note this fact on the menu somewhere. Together they amount to about 25% of the bill. You do not tip. The service is very good to excellent everywhere you go. People are friendly, helpful and eager to make you happy. If you are happy, said one, so am I.
Pura vida! This means “to life.” I have seen it translated as ‘cool’ but I do not think that’s a good translation. The people here love to live, to party, to be happy. I think they are happy, except when they are in their cars. Then they are much more aggressive and ignore every traffic law possible. But everywhere else, it’s live and let live. Maybe this is what makes them such lousy managers.
The CR certainly do not derive their managerial culture from the U.S., nor England, nor Germany. They love to pass paper around, sometimes and usually needlessly. In most stores, for instance, your purchases are taken to a station where they are bagged or wrapped. The clerk who helped you gives that next clerk a piece of paper, probably a receipt, identifying your purchase. Then the clerk takes you to a cash register. You usually stand in line, then pay with a second recipt that the first clerk has given you. Usually if you pay by credit card, the cashier has to go somewhere to get authorization. Once you pay, then you may have to stand in line again to get your package. The clerk who bagged your purchase matches the receipt of payment with the other receipt.
This procedure is not used in grocery stores. In most of them, there is but one line, some of the larger stores have scanners, and there is usually someone to bag your groceries for you. Other than they overload the bags, meaning I usually have to repack them, the grocery stores are fairly efficient.
Bus fare collection is not automated, and leaves a lot of room for employee theft. Most buses, however, are owned by the drivers. Because there is no receipt process, their cheating is probably limited to income tax. There is no way to buy a buspass, so everyone over the age of three has to pay each time. The fares are really cheap. From San Jose to Heredia costs about $.30 (100 colones). There is no wonder at why the buses polute so badly. At these fares, it is very difficult to pay for repairs or new buses. Generally, however, the buses are very clean and we have yet to see one broken down. They are very good at mainetance at the maintenance of their vehicles.
Good thing, too. Cars here are taxed at 70-100% of their value upon registration. So a $15000 car from the U.S. costs up to twice that amount. The lower rates are set to go into effect soon, and appply to cars three years or newer. This is to encourage people to buy newer cars, in order to reduce pollution. There are some real smoke and flame throwers on the road here. They need to get rid of them. The pollution is bad. They have anti-pollution laws, but like the traffic laws, they do not manage to enforce them. Like there is hardly a police officer to be seeen, I think that there are only five shops in the country that can check for emissions.
Typically helpful Tica
Peg was looking for some strips of material to add to a blouse. I was trying to explain what she wanted to a clerk. The clerk headed for a bolt of fabric to slice some off. Not what Peg wanted! She wanted ribbons, but I did not know the word. A customer standing next to me understood, however, and said that she would take us to a store that sold ribbon. She not only took us there, but spent ten minutes helping Peg match colors and get the width she wanted. Then she made her order, her small son still waiting patiently.
Termales del Bosque and the Canopy Tour
Cuidad Quesada, aka San Carlos, is a beautiful two and a half hour bus ride from San Jose. The small city is a convenient place to stay if you plan to visit the Termales del Bosque (Hot Springs of the Forest), which is only about ten kilometers away.
We stayed in Hotel Central for 5600 colones, about $20. The rooms are attractive, with tile floors and freshly painted white walls. Ours had a balcony. From it we could see many houses, some dilapidated but most in decent shape, all with tin roofs. A road ran up the steep hill opposite. There were bright neon lights from some shops. The nearby hills and mountains were covered in thick, light gray clouds. Rain occasionally misted the area.
We went on the canopy tour/hot springs tour on Thursday. They picked us up for an extra $2 per person. A local cab would have cost about the same. Their minivan took us to the path that lead us into the forest.
The trail is paved with tree stumps and concrete blocks. We are in thick forests as we go up and down a few small hills. In about ten minutes we arrive at a thatched hut built alongside a stream. Steam rises from several ponds created by dams one foot or so in height, made of stone. We are alone on this tour.
The four-member crew readies the four of us for the ascent into the trees. They use what I think is conventional rock-climbing gear. A harness slips around your hips and between your legs. There are several clips. It makes you feel very secure. We all clanked as we walked to the first tree. Clipped to a line, you climb about 40′ to the first platform. If you fall, the clips automatically stops you within a foot or two. You climb using a metal ladder like those I have seen at ranger stations.
The platform is small, in two sections each about two square meters. As you reach it, the guides provide whatever assistance you need, and attach your harness to lines. When everyone is up, we prepare to glide to the next tree.
For the glide, you are attached to a cable. You use one hand as a brake on the cable. Other than that, all you do is sit down in your harness, push off gently and slide the rest of the way. It is a little frightening at first, but then it’s fun.
There is not much wildlife to see other than a few birds. There is vegetation, but the point of view is not that different from being on the ground.
They have three platforms. From the third one you rappel to the ground. The crew is continuously helping. We were all wanting more and were disappointed to learn that the third one was the final platform. I also expected them to tell us something about the forest. They had not a word to say other than how to use the equipment. The entire process took only forty-five minutes.
We ate lunch under the thatched roof. Afterwards, we bathed in the hot springs. This was very relaxing. About 2 p.m. they drove us back to town. I think we all felt that the tour was pleasurable but over-priced at $50 per person.
Cuidad Quesada has a church containing the largest and ugliest Jesus on the cross ever imagined. It was so ugly that Neal walked back with his camera to snap a photo or two.
A guest in the hotel recommended a cafe in the nearby market. Its owner greets every customer with a handshake. His name is William, his last name is English also, like Jones or something. He was born in CR and has lived here his entire life. The cafe is beautiful, despite its location in the drab market. The counter top, stools and most of the inner section housing the utensils are of beautifully stained lumber. Here’s the place for gallo pinto, with or without eggs, scrambled, fried or poached. Add a little tabasco and awake you are. Rich, naturally sweet coffee. A couple of bucks.
Today (Friday the 4th) we are going to Fortuna, at the base of Volcan Arenal. It is an active volcano, erupting most recently in May of this year. It was dormant from around 1500 until 1968. Huge explosions killed at least seventy-eight people, 45,000 head of cattle, and completely destroyed two villages. The volcano still has a conical shape, looking like a typical volcano. There are continuous rumblings, steam vents and lava flows. However, it is covered with clouds year-round, preventing you from seeing the lava. Often the whole volcano is shrouded.
The bus to Fortuna meets my criteria for ‘chicken bus.’ Well, there aren’t any chickens on it but it is an old yellow school bus. I suspect that they buy these buses from schools districts in the U.S. Our bus is packed to the extreme. The law allows no more than ten people to stand. I counted about twenty-five. A woman I sat next to told me that there have been accidents on this route traceable to the overloading. She pointed out one spot marked by a plaque. Here bus load of people died when the brakes failed. It was overloaded like we are now.
She was on a bus whose brakes failed. The driver managed to drive up a hill to slow the bus down. She gets off at the entrance to a university. My neighbor is studying for her Ph.D. in Education, emphasizing children with special needs.
An hour and a half and we have completed our tortuous, torturous, forty-five kilometer ride to Fortuna. Several people selling rooms and tours meet us at the bus stop. One hotel offering sounded good. It was mentioned in the guide book, which helped since we then knew something about it. The price he quoted was $30. I said that we did not spend more than $20. Off he went to call the hotel. A few minutes later, he reported that they agreed to the price. We told him to wait a while we had something to drink and checked out other hotels.
When I returned from checking other hotels, Peg, Susan and Neal were talking to an Indian. He is a Bri-Bri and makes his living in part as a guide. He offered a tour to the Volcano to see the birds and the lava flows. Carlos said that you can see the lava at times, but you can never count on it. Birds, including parrots and toucans, and monkeys are easy to find. Recently he saw a jaguar. They are not often seen, he sees their tracks occasionally. He leaves around 2:00 p.m. and returns between 9:00 and 12:00. There is a stop for dinner in the mountains. We tell him we will come and find him tomorrow.
Two Toucans, one too too
Two toucans that live with the hotel owners visited us outside our room was we drank coffee and ate some raisins. One was shy, the other not. The latter aggressively demanded food and nipped your toe if you did not comply. He used his long, flexible beak to bite Peg’s arm. It hurt very little. He managed to make a pest of himself, becoming before long a too too toucan. (For my foreign readers, ‘too too’ suggests the expression ‘too much,’ meaning excessive.
At around 10:00 a.m. I saw Carlos. I told him that Peg, Susan and Neal were hesitant to go considering the rain, but I was going anyway. I suggested that if he talked with them, he assure them they would not be getting too muddy. As we spoke, he spotted two tourists and he tried to get them to join me in the tour, although he said he’d take me regardless. The two from France agree to come. Perhaps my encouragement helped.
Later he met with Peg, Susan and Neal. They decided to come. We wouldn’t get that wet, he said. It will stop raining. He said he had the gift of precognition, but bring rain gear just in case. He wasn’t kidding about the precognition. Not that I thought he had the gift, but I believed that he thought he had it.
By 2:00 p.m., the rain had stopped. Carlos negotiated with a four-wheel drive taxi driver. He told us that it would cost 7000 colones, about $25, for all 8 of us for the ride up and back. We agreed, and the four of us, and the French couple and a young woman from California, crammed into the back of a Ford Bronco for a bucking ride up the mountain.
The driver stopped near where a village once was. It was destroyed by the volcano. All the residents died. I think that this was in the 1950’s. A short distance further on, we passed the steam baths. These cost $12-14 per person. Carlos said we could go there or he would take us to the stream where we could enjoy a pool he had created by damming the stream. We chose the latter. The driver dropped us off further along, and returned to Fortuna while we began walking along the mucky road.
About 10-15 minutes later we could hear the volcano. Behind some thick vegetation there was a huffing noise that sounded like a gigantic animal trying to go uphill. It was eerie. I imagined a brontosaurus’ head emerging from the plants and mist to inspect us. Not long after we saw a beautifully colored small bird. Its wings were bright blue. Then the volcano rumbled, sounding like thunder. Carlos told us how dangerous the volcano remains. It is scientifically monitored. He pointed to a building where scientists stayed. It was much closer to the volcano than we were, which was about 2 kilometers from the peak. But we were close to vents, as we have already discovered, and eruptions of hot gases could easily occur where we were walking.
Shortly there were parrots, then toucans in the trees along the side of the road. There were several varieties of parrot, and three of toucan. There were many other birds, whose names I do not recall, some drab but most containing at least a splash of bright color. As we walked toward the entrance, the clouds cleared and we got an excellent view of the volcano. There are many steam vents, especially on the steep, naked slopes. The plume emerging from the cone obscured the peak and thus we saw no lava.
I saw clouds rolling toward us along the base of the volcano. Then came the rains. Before long clothes then shoes are drenched. Carlos is non-plussed and continues to hustle Trish. She chuckles as she tells us of his efforts. However, she won’t go off without others around from that point on. Carlos shows us a see-through frog hiding along the side of the road, about an inch long, croaking for a mate.
The taxi returned on time and we climbed in. It took less than thirty bumpy minutes to reach the stream. Everyone climbs in, surrounded by jungle and the darkness that arrives by 6:30 p.m. here, especially when it is raining like this. The water is warm, 90-95 degrees. There is a small waterfall where Carlos placed some limbs to back up the stream. Frogs joined us, noisily croaking from nearby logs or reeds. This is quite the spot, especially in the darkness.
Dinner was under a thatched roof. The rain continues to pour. Although we are wet thoroughly, we remain warm although we are sitting outdoors. There is no choice. There is no indoor seating.
Carlos loves to talk. Mostly about himself. He tells us that he is doing a tour soon and will be paid $17,000 for a week. He says he has a masters or Ph.D., I think in biology. Our guide speaks English very well, although I had to help him translate from time to time. Carlos told our cab driver to be very careful, as he had a premonition that he was going to have an accident. He asked me if he should tell the guy. I said no. What is the guy supposed to do, not work for the next week because Carlos told him he was going to be injured? Carlos believes in some sort of spirit world, but I can’t tell whether it is Indian or Christian.
Physically our guide is imposing. He stands a husky 6′ or a little more. He carries an impressive pair of binoculars. These cost $1000, he tells us repeatedly, and we are not to drop them. They are very good binoculars, far better than my $200 pair, for bird watching anyway. He wears camouflage fatigues. He bought a camouflage kerchief from Neal yesterday. He is wearing it.
Carlos told us that he was threatened by some people in town, who were jealous of his ability to get tourists to go places with him. They told him he was making too much money. He said that was silly, since he rarely made more than $50 a day here. Perhaps they threatened him because he is an Indian, he ventured. Maybe he will stay longer, just to irritate them.
Carlos stays at a hotel. He gets us to stay there this evening. I think that his room is free- it is not among the regular guest rooms– or he gets a commission for bringing guests in. He did indeed try to sell us on his place along with the tour when we arrived yesterday. It’s not as good, but it costs only $20 per room normally.
Carlos speaks very pleasantly of the owners. They are from Romania. I spoke with the wife several times and told her of our travels in Romania.
I like Carlos, despite his boasting. He is not as self-confident as he wants to appear. Perhaps he is scared, lonely.
At 8 a.m. we are on another chicken bus. We are going to Liberia via Talarán and Cañas. Susan’s sort of relative, Fargo, lives there. The ride to Talarán takes three hours although it is only 80 kilometers (48 miles)! The road is gravel, dirt, sometimes pavement. It winds slowly about Lake Arenal, which is artificial and famous mostly for wind surfing and the destruction of habitat resulting from its creation. And for making the trip to Talarán much longer.
We had about twenty minutes in Talarán, barely enough time to eat. I ordered a casado. She had a pot of beans ready to go. She added some lard to the pot, a few more green peppers, and ladled a few spoonfuls onto the griddle, adding onions then. Lunch in five minutes! Fortunately I caught her before she ruined my lunch with a fried egg on top of all. The back-packing college students from the U.S. came in next, got their lunch, and took it aboard the bus. Only then did they discover that the chicken was raw. She did not have enough time for them.
The 11:30 bus to Cañas was standing room only, though we did get seats, and the isles were crammed with bags of rice or whatnot. Fortunately the ride took only thirty minutes. Then we got to wait three hours for the bus into Liberia. Those of us who had not eaten got to enjoy the tiny hut across the street from the dusty bus station. I say ‘dusty’ because now the landscape had changed, looking more like desert than the jungles to which we have become accustomed.
‘Arroz cantonese’ (Chinese -Canton- style rice) was the featured item in the bar. In fact, a Chinese woman came to take our orders. She did not know what a ‘Rock Ice’ was, even when I explained in Spanish that it was a beer. She said she did not normally take orders, and although the other customers tried to help also, she gave up. The Tico got the orders instead, which we gave not from the menu, since there was none, but by asking what he could do. This was really a bar and not a cafe, but nonetheless they had fried chicken and a few other things, besides the arroz cantonese.
Music played loudly, the t.v. was on but no sound was coming out. Everyone was watching intently. It was a telethon for handicapped children. This is quite the event here, judging from the success of a child passing an official looking donation box in the bus earlier and the attention paid to the television in this bar. This bar seemed an unlikely place to attract people who gave a damn about kids, handicapped or not. Indeed, looking about, there were several rough looking characters. One table seated two blacks, while at the bar there were an Indian, a mestizo, and a few orientals. At closer look, they were not rough in the sense of mean, but just dressed to work in the dirt and dust, doing the things that need to be done.
It took an hour and half to get to Liberia, and we waited in the expansive outdoor bus station for Fargo. Thirty minutes later we were with her and back on the Pan American Highway, for we had passed her door on the way into Liberia.
We greatly enjoyed her and her husband Amado’s hospitality (Amado is the brother of Sylvia, our landlord). We had turkey for dinner. Since we had empanadas on the bus ride home from Cahuita on Thanksgiving day, it was a pleasure to have turkey today.
Peg and I spent the night at the Hotel Central. We would not recommend it. Although it cost only 6000 colones, the surly clerkette gave us the room on the street. Since the hard beds let us sleep only lightly, the roaring motorcycles and buses awoke us frequently.
Liberia and a plethora of fruit
After breakfast, which included bacon, eggs, rice and beans, we toured the grounds. Amado works for a large rice producer and give technical advice to his employer and other growers in the area. He has quite a collection here: avocado, star fruit, grapefruit, lemons, oranges, limes, hearts of palm, pejibaye, several varieties of banana, plantain, cilantro creole (a stronger flavor than other cilantros), almonds, prickly pear, mango and maybe more that I do not recall. Many were nearing ripe condition. Fargo said that mangoes fresh off the tree are fabulous. She told Neal that papaya skins have a tenderizer in them. If you score the skin about a day before you eat it, the papaya tastes better. There is a tamarind tree. In CR the seed, I think, or the leaf, is used to make a tea. Its main use is as an ingredient in Worcestershire sauce.
We see lizards galore, beautiful bright yellow Baltimore orioles, wood peckers, large jays and clapping butterflies. The wings of the latter clap as they beat. They have a parrot in a cage. One night they heard a rasping sound from the back yard. They thought it was a wild bird dying but then it dawned on them that it was their parrot! They rushed outside. A boa constrictor was wrapped around their pet and he was squawking, now rasping for help. They killed the snake. They have not seen a boa since. Amado thinks that pesticides have killed them all off, along with the eagles that they used to see.
Amado told us that he once sold some mangos to someone in the area. He came back several years later to say that he had no fruit. He could not understand why. He fertilized, he watered frequently.
“You sold me mango that does not give fruit,” he complained.
I will tell you the secret,” said Amado to his customer.
“Don’t water them.”
Mangoes, it turns out, do not like much water. There are lots of trees that flower only if stressed by dry conditions.
“The cashew is one,” he said, as we stood in front of a fine example. I have never seen a cashew tree, and did not know they grew on trees until I came to CR. The part we eat is the seed, which is external but connected to the fruit.
One tree he has, which I do not recall, is a natural insecticide and is used in Nicaragua. They cannot afford chemicals. Amado uses no chemicals on his property.
He shows us his pineapple trees. He grew them by planting tops of pineapples in the soil. Bananas, he teaches, keep coming back. When the fruit is ripe or removed, the shoot, sometimes twenty or more feet tall, dies. In the meantime, another from the same roots has already started to grow. It too will fruit and then die.
The temperature is very even here, seldom varying more than five degrees. Fargo brought a thermometer with her from North Dakota. Maybe South Dakota. She says that she rarely sees it move, and you only need a few marks on the dial. She points at the -40 degree mark and laughs. It is 28-30 c (80-85) all year. It sometimes hits 40 in March or April.
There is no window glass, just bug screens in their house. There are few bugs. Some ants found and bit us, especially Susan, as we were walking about. But I have not seen or felt a mosquito.
Amado understands and speaks some English, but he spoke almost entirely in Spanish. Fargo helped with the names of the trees, for my vocabulary is limited in this regard. I notice that his “r’s” are quite unlike the “r” in Spain. It is almost like an English “r,” farther back in the mouth, with no trill. I have heard this before, and I think in most Ticos, but only with him did this pronunciation become clear to me. I think that Ticos have a gringo accent!
We made our farewells afterwards, and at 11:30 we boarded the bus for Ocotal Beach, an hour or so away. Fortunately we arrived early, for the large signs said that this bus was to leave at noon. The bus does not go all the way, so we had to take a taxi. It was a two-door pickup truck with a little back seat. The rough road took us past some tin shacks and a luxury hotel. We looked for a place mentioned in the book at $25 per night. Since it turned out to be $25 per person, we head back to the nearby beach town that the Ticos use. Coco Beach is said to be not too attractive. The book is accurate on this point, but it is not the worst we have seen. With a little effort, we find an attractive albeit basic place, wooden, private bath without hot water. It is barely two minutes from the surf. 4000 colones per night. I just happened to see it as we turned away from it. Its called La Lunatica. The book listed the price at almost twice the price. Others were incredulous so I checked with them a second time. I had not misunderstood.
There is a restaurant here, on the beach, and famous for its whole fish. This fame is no exaggeration. The redfish was fabulous and only about $5.00. The setting is lovely, for the beach and surf, neither the prettiest, is nonetheless a delightful backdrop.
While we wait for lunch, I began to talk with a fellow sitting nearby. I could see that he was trying to follow the conversation; I probably was, too. I asked if he spoke English. He said he did some, but he could not follow our conversation too well. It is understandable that he had difficulty, since we probably speak a kind of code as friends often do, and quickly, and we tell lots of jokes, mostly stupid but nonetheless difficult to follow.
He and his wife are veterinarians. They live in Puntarenas. They are here with their young daughter for a brief vacation. This proves the theory that if you go to expensive places and hang out there, you will not meet many locals. Rather, you will meet foreigners, especially, here, from the U.S. Here they refer to us as ‘norteamericanos’. This lumps Canadians and ‘Americans’ together. There is the word ‘estadounidense’ but it is a mouthful even for a native speaker, so they ended up with ‘norteamericanos’. Only the Canadians will be offended.
We spoke for quite a while, about what I cannot recall. We take our leave, and I negotiate a taxi ride to Hermosa Beach. It should be prettier than Coco Beach, given its name. It is.
Along the way we pass the remains of a failed Mexican venture. The investors wanted to turn Hermosa Beach into Cancún. I am glad they failed. Hermosa Beach is delightful. Shade trees with knarled branches extend over the sand. The waves I swam in were the most perfect that I have even been in for this purpose, and for body surfing. They were maybe about four feet high at the most, curling perfectly. There was no undertow, no rip tide. The sun was out but the temperature was in the low eighties. A nearby bar serves cold beer for 300 colones.
It would be a beautiful spot for dinner. We should have come back. Instead we opted for one of the few open places, a pizzeria. Ho hum pizza, but we enjoyed the visit of the young skunk. He scurried across the floor while we waited for someone to go to the liquor store to buy beer for us.
For the second consecutive night, sleep comes difficultly. Here, however, it is the sound of the surf and the howler monkeys that keep waking me up.
A near run-in with Immigration
It’s Monday and time to return to the daily grind. This means a bus ride to San José. We are back on the Pan American Highway. In CR, it is a two-lane road. Buses share the road with pedestrians, hitchhikers, trucks, cars, bicycles and horses. And any other form of transportation that someone decides to use.
Along the way, we are stopped for a passport check. I had my copy but Peggy had lost hers along the way. He said that we had to get off the bus to handle this matter. He said we should understand that they could not allow foreigners to walk around without a passport or other documentation. It would take several hours to get this worked out. I got up to leave as the officer passed on. Several people said, “No, next time!” He apparently said that he would let her away with it this time, but not to do it again. I thanked him as he walked past.
If we had been Nicaraguans, they would normally have detained us. There are lots of illegal from that country who come here to work. Recently, however, the CR government announced an amnesty allowing illegal from countries hit by Mitch to remain a few more months. This probably helped us avoid difficulties.
There have not been any rest rooms on any of the buses we have been on in Costa Rica. This time there is no break between Liberia and San José, a journey of over four hours. Not a pleasant journey for me. I had a slight case of Coco Beach revenge. (Foreign readers: Montezuma is the name of the Mayan leader killed by the Spanish shortly after they invaded what is now called Mexico. When people from the U.S. go to Mexico, they sometimes get dysentery. They call it ‘Montezuma’s revenge.’ I am alluding to this here.)
It took me several days to recover from the bus ride from Playa Coco. Today it’s another bus ride, three in fact, but only to the south side of San Jose. There is a book store we are looking for. It is fifty meters west of the Taco Bell.
These are directions they give you here. We did find it and on the way explored the mall near the book store. This mall is easily the most upscale we have seen to date. It is quite small, however.
Along the way, we also walked through the pedestrian mall in San Jose. This is probably the most attractive area of town and the quietest and cleanest as well. Shops line the street. Ticos must love shoes, for here and everywhere there are many little shoe shops. They hawk U.S. brands more than any other, especially Bass, Nike and Rebok. On the streets are vendors of chances and lotteries of all kinds. The Red Cross always has people out soliciting contributions. There are poor, sick, injured and handicapped standing, sitting and laying about. A few display stumps where legs were once attached. Some play musical instruments, badly, or play scratchy radios for your “entertainment.”
Visiting Volcan Poas requires a bus trip to Alajuela. When we arrived in Alajuela, about thirty minutes but just 15 kilometers or so from Heredia I asked where to find the bus to Poas. This got us on a bus that went to Poas, but the town, not the volcano.
A fellow traveler said he would tell us where to meet the bus that would take us to the volcano, about thirty-seven kilometers from Alajuela. His name is Hugo and he sat next to Peg and they spoke the entire time. In Spanish. This is a major event, for it shows how well Peg’s Spanish has become. Not only is she getting the exposure from our journeys, but she is studying her books almost daily.
Hugo tells us when to get off the bus. We land in front of a little snack stand, and less than two minutes later, our bus arrives.
It costs $7 to enter the Parque Nacional Volcán Poás. In my earlier journal entry, I noted that the entrance fees were prohibitively expensive. I read somewhere that the fees were about $40-50. This is obviously not so.
From the parking lot there is a walk of about one kilometer to the overlook. A demarcated area is for viewing but there is nothing but cloud when we arrive. The thick fog makes us damp, almost cold. We wait around in the visitor center, the cloud appears to lift, and I get my fist view of an active volcano. Down below is the bubbling crater, sending smells of hard-boiled eggs our way. The crater lake is bright bluer. Our altitude is 2704 meters.
Our guide book says that there are three major periods of recorded activity: 1888-95, 1903-12, and 1952-54. The park was closed part of 1989 due to an eruption of volcanic ash. The crater is 1.5 k across and 300 meters deep. Steam rises along the crater lake and on the crater sides. You can clearly see where the mountain once had a top, blown away in a tremendous explosion. We can also see the old crater. One can gaze at the volcano for only a while before you recall that it may not do anything but emit steam for a long, long time.
We then walked through the cloud forest to the lagoon. For a mile we walked uphill through the thick, wiry trees. Birds abound. There are hummingbirds here, said the book, but we saw none. Instead there were many bright colored, tiny birds. One group of about twenty was carrying on quite a conversation on a bush. I was ahead of the others, so I could listen for about five minutes. Perhaps if you were to be there when no one else was, you could listen in on hundreds or thousands of the dialogues that occur among the feathered inhabitants. But now the tourists’ blather drowns them out and drives many small creatures into hiding.
The visitor center has a small exhibit of Costa Rican insects. There are some very large bugs in this country.
Hugo and Norma
Hugo invited us to his house. He and his wife, Norma, meet us in downtown San José. They drove us in their jeep. In Spanish, this is pronounced ‘heap.’ (In English, heap means a pile of objects, especially a pile of junk.) They use ‘jeep’ here to refer to any four wheel drive vehicle.
They drove us through the town of Escazu, a suburb of San José. It is home to the better off, some of them retirees from the U.S. We ascend the slopes opposite Heredia, slopes to date we have only seen. About half-way up, Norma shifts into four wheel drive and the well maintained, underpowereed, bright yellow 1978 Hundai creeps the rest of the way to their house.
The house sits on a fabulous site. Spread out before us is San José and much of the Central Valley. Hugo and Norma bought this property either six or ten years ago; the couple disagreed on the dates. They hired an architect and came up with a design, then bought materials and hired workers. The family moved in several years ago. Their parents live on the same property just moments away.
Their house is rich with wood, which is inexpensive here. Teak that sells for something like $20-25 a foot in the states costs less than $.50. Or something like that. It was designed and built with views in mind. Not only is it the orientation but the way they installed the windows that shows forethought. The windows jut out from the side of the building, and are built in a triangular shape. This allows the maximum angle of vision. It turns out that Norma was primarily responsible for the design of the house. She said it was very difficult to find an architect who could and would do what you wanted, given the limitations of material, time, and budget.
Hugo is a florist. He has land on the side of Volcán Poas. His products are exported to the U.S., as is much of the floral produce of CR. Around his home are many trees, particularly fruit trees. As we walked about, he would send one of his two sons to pick something for us to try.
Below the house there is a gully. During the heavy rains from Hurricane Mitch, a piece of the mountain collapsed and washed down the gully. This tore up some of his landscaping but was no threat to their house, well above. There are large boulders and tree stumps in the gully that were not there a few months ago.
This is a vegetarian family. This meant for us that again we had beans and rice for lunch. There were many other tasty choices to contrast with the ubiquitous combination.
Norma and Hugo have two children. One is fifteen. He speaks some English. They want him to spend a year in the U.S. to attend high school. He does not seem interested, or maybe he is frightened by the prospect. I suggested that maybe a month in the summer (I mean July or August, but in CR December-February is called ‘summer’).
Our hosts could not have been more gracious. Costa Ricans must be among the best hosts anywhere. We left wanting to see them again, and feeling that we would always be warmly received. This sentiment helps me deal with the frustration I feel in conducting business, sometimes even the most ordinary transactions, not because of rudeness. This is rarely encountered. They just have a poorly developed sense of efficiency. For a Unitedstatesian, efficiency is usually a top priority. We think that there is no time to waste. Here, time is built to waste. Or to fill with noise.
Christmas in Costa Rica
Each Sunday in Parque Central a band plays in the large gazebo in front of the old Church. I was unsure of what that music would be during the holiday season. It turned out to be mostly the same tunes one would hear in the U.S.: Silent Night, Jingle Bells, O Little Town of Bethlehem and the like. However, there were some other tunes that I did not recognize. I cannot comment on them.
In the park there are about six small booths where vendors sell Nativity decorations. They differ dramatically in style and materials but not in substance to what one would see in the U.S. They are mostly handmade but nonetheless inexpensive. There are also other gift items, such as leather purses and wallets. Similar sidewalk booths are on the streets elsewhere in town. Some sell mangers, decorative ferns (which one would not see in the U.S.), some larger Christmas figures, lights, etc.
A few houses are decorated with lights. A bi-lingual school on the main road to Alajuela has an enormous, expertly crafted, lighted nativity scene. They built forms and it appears they covered them with paper maché. The workers must have applied a sealer, for the rain did not wash the paper maché away.
Peg bought a pair of shoes whose blue dye stained her socks thoroughly. We went back to the store and told them of the problem. A thirty minute negotiation followed. They insisted that the bleeding was normal, we that it was not. They relented but made us type a “formal” letter. This meant we had to go back home and then return to San Jose, for the letter could not be hand written. Apparently only typewritten letters mean anything. When we returned, they took the shoes in exchange for new one. These were more expensive. It is not customary to exchange or return anything for a refund here. They said that we had to remember that CR is a small country and the stores do not make much money. Thus return policies, which they knew to be more liberal in the U.S., are practically non-existent here.
Floored by the dance
We attended a dance performance in the National Theater. I think that I have already accounted how difficult, impossible, rather, it was to get information about the productions and the cost of entrance. I am beginning to think that people here spend a great deal of their lives in a state of “not knowing.” It does not seem to bother them. Perhaps I am so accustomed to having easy access to information that this sort of problem stands out, whereas to a Tico, they already know that you can’t find out, so they don’t bother trying or thinking about it.
We were forced to just go when we wanted to see an event. Fortunately we could get seats without difficulty about an hour before the performance for 500 colones, less than $2.00. After buying the tickets we listened to a mixed choir signing Christmas tunes in harmony while we sipped capuccinos. This was outdoors on the plaza in front of the theater. We had excellent capucino at a nearby, posh restaurant.
The National Theater is, inside and out, the most beautiful building in CR. It compares favorably with similar structures we have seen in the U.S. and Europe. Outside there are statues of Beethoven and Calderón de la Barca, two of my favorites. I read the latter in Spanish while a high school student. Inside there are paintings, gilded ceilings, decorative scones made of lumber and a statue or two. The staircase is marble. The building was damaged by an earthquake in 1991 but has since been repaired. The auditorium is about three stories in height. The upper seats are wrapped around the main gallery and all afford excellent viewing and acoustics.
The dance performance was a series of unique and interesting numbers. The dancers made extensive use of the floor. Literally. For there was much laying, rolling, scraping and crawling on the floor. The performers were as often on their back or stomach slithering, crawling and rolling as they were on their feet, or so it seemed. A woman performed dance-like maneuvers while suspended from the ceiling. The music was pre-recorded. It was largely acoustical instruments, mostly drums as I recall, and the Afro-Caribbean influence was unmistakable.
On the first night we attended, there was free rum and coke during intermission. Another night we shared the auditorium with about 50 deaf people. They signed to one another from one side of the gallery to the other, ‘shouting’ about one thing or another. When others clapped, they waved both hands. That’s how deaf people clap in CR.
The four of us went to Banco de los Mariscos, a seafood restaurant. But it closed at 7 p.m., just as we were arriving. We noticed on the way up the mountain that many restaurants were closed so we weren’t surprised. We did find a nearby restaurant open. The four of us sat in their gardens, on their outdoor patio. The thick vegetation and relaxed but handsome decor was enchanting. Stars overhead filled the sky. We had great views of the twinkling lights of the city of Alajuela in the valley. This was from the steep hill we climbed to get the bus. Teenagers gathered on the streets to play. Holiday meals were on the table of the houses lining the street. Families gathered and then there was hardly a sound on the street. However, Neal found a little shop open, one facing the central park. He bought an ice cream cone and sat in the newly completed, covered bus stop. Soon the old bus arrived, and thirty minutes later we were home, in time for Santa.
Peg’s sister Kay, Nic and Travis arrived yesterday. Since they had Christmas dinner on the plane, we assumed that they would not be in the mood for a heavy meal with us last evening. Neal and Susan put together a beautiful spread of CR fruits. Our guests sampled the mango, papaya, passion fruit, pineapple and more. There were several strange flavors on the table and at times they sampled gingerly. Passion fruit got the vote for being the oddest of them all.
Today Peg and I accompanied our guests to Ciudad Quesada for the Canopy Tour. They got the same excellent treatment from the staff that we had on our visit. Peg and I spent the time gazing about the thick forests and listening to the stream whose volcano warmed feeders kept the nearby pools in the 90’s’
The trip to Ciudad Quesada takes two and one half hours. Peg wanted to return to Heredia the same day. We boarded the bus, which careened through the mountains before dropping us off in San Jose. Thus in one day I was on the bus for almost six hours, including the trips between San Jose and Heredia. The thought of the upcoming bus trip to Cahuita made me nauseous.
Acrobats in the park
Crystal clear blue skies for music in the park. As we entered the park the band played “New York, New York.” Afterward acrobats performed behind the gazebo. These were a family of two young girls and their father. The girls displayed acts of incredible flexibility. One arched her head over her back and touched ground behind. Then she Picked up a hat that was on the floor! The father jumped through hoops that had knives pointing toward the center and inside the hoop. Afterwards the father collected from the crowd. He said that he has worked in the U.S. for many years. His father is Peruvian, his mother a Nica(araguan). He concludes that he, therefore, is French. The crowd laughed! He played the crowd very well and collected what could have been a fair amount.
Hundreds mill about in the perfect temperature. Dogs lay in the sun like they belong there. One thinks he owns the park and tries to chase the other dogs away. Then he realizes there are too many and just gives up. He barks occasionally at no one or nothing in particular. Perhaps he barks at the immensity of the task. I have done likewise more than once.
A young man brought his iguana to the park. He is about four feet long. He encourages the children to pet it. Travis accepts the offer. Someone or somehow the iguana ended up sitting calmly on Travis’ head. Kay took his photograph with the green critter with red and other colored flecks in his skin.
Although I went nowhere else on the 27th, while the others did some local sight seeing and shopping, I was still loathe to get on the bus to go to Cahuita. However, we had already purchased tickets so I felt obligated to go. Fortunately an official from the Department of Transportation came to our bus as we were boarding. This forced the bus company to not allow people to stand in the aisles. We were more comfortable than we would have been, for the aisles would have been crammed with people. I would have had someone’s posterior in my face, I am certain. Unfortunately, the mountainous jungles called Parque Nacional Braulio Carillo were covered in dense cloud. We saw little and the closeness created by the clouds contributed to a slight motion sickness.
I sat next to a teenage girl. She understood some English so I spoke to her. She studies English in school. She said that she cannot speak as well as she can understand. She said that school is off between December and February. This is the summer vacation period. This season offers the best weather of the year.
Cahuita was more crowded than it was during our last visit. Thus the fact that we made reservations at Nan Nan’s Seaside (Seeside) Hotel and they remembered that we had done so was fortuitous. Again a small group of male teenaged Rastafarians begged aggressively near our hotel.
Beautiful sunshine greeted us this morning as we walked into the Parque Nacional Cahuita. The book says that the government raised the entrance fees recently, meaning now several years ago, to $15. Locals feared that no one would pay $15 just to walk on the beach so they closed the entrance and put up their own. This entrance is one I mentioned in the journal of our previous trip. The fee is a voluntary one, normally 250 colones.
Soon we saw a sloth, then another, this one carrying a youngster clinging to her chest. On the ground hundreds of salamanders scurried about. Heavy rains that stopped yesterday caused the water level to rise. This brought pools close to the trail and the salamanders as well. The rains also caused the evacuation of several hundred people and the road to Cahuita was closed due to flooding.
A park employee joined us and stayed with us until we reached the cape. Not long after I spotted a howler monkey. At first, I thought it was another sloth as it was not moving. I asked the employee if it was a sloth or a monkey. “Congo,” he said. ‘Congo’ is the word they use for howler monkey. There were about ten of them. They were napping. There were several young ones. Further along there was a dead sloth on the path. Blue morph butterflies were still in abundance. There were also endless lines of leaf cutter ants. Some of these lines stretched for about a mile.
The path was muddier and the mosquitos more abundant. They began to attack when we stopped. Fortunately the mild deet spray we brought along was effective. At one point the trail was completely washed away and we had to wade through brown-stained fresh water where it met the ocean.
At the cape the white-faced monkeys greeted us. This time we had fruit with us and they eagerly competed for the mangos. Some were very shy and did not get a share of the handouts so we tried to get them some. We swam in the swift current at the cape. Kay walked about on the dead reef. Peg stayed in the shade. I struggled to remove my suit in the water. Nic and Travis frolicked in the waves.
A beach bar sits at the entrance to the park. Its owner rescued and befriended a young sloth several years ago, as it was about to grab some electrical wires. The sloth now comes every day for a mango and often sleeps in the outdoor portion of the restaurant, especially if it is raining or if he feels threatened. When he gets his mango, he hangs upside down from the rafters, his head nearly resting on the Coca Cola machine. He lets people pet him. Peg said his fur was very soft, as soft as human hair.
On the way to our hotel after dinner we saw 6″ crabs scurrying across the streets. They had dug holes in the middle of the street into which they retreated. The moon’s crescent slice rose to illuminate our path. The surf just outside our room continued its soothing roar.
Stuffed on a bus
The direct bus to San Jose was nearly full when it arrived in Cahuita. Only those with reservations were permitted to board. Some of them had to stand. We had to wait about an hour to take the local bus to Limón. There we could catch another of the frequent buses to San Jose. The local bus was also packed, so we had to stand the entire way, about an hour and a half. The bus stopped frequently, and left no one waiting for the next bus, no matter how full the bus was. It was dangerous, since getting people out of the bus in an emergency would have been difficult. That’s why I stood near the door.
On the way Peg struck up a conversation with a young man. When we arrived in Limón, the young man, who was with his parents and sister, helped us find the bus stop. He told us that we could take the new double decker bus. We found it and the ticket window, where you had to specify that bus, otherwise you would not get the correct ticket. These buses cost about $250,000 but are not permitted to charge any more that the other buses. It cost about $5.00 to get to San Jose (about 1100 colones).
We sat on the lower level of the bus. It was very comfortable although the compartment we were in was small. Apparently the stairway to the second level splits the first level into two parts. We were in the rear.
Not all is quiet on the Heredian front. Twelve-speed buses make their last runs at top velocity. Fire crackers explode here and there on the mountainside where Heredia sits. The Central Valley twinkles in the clear air. Bells toll, for thee.
Music plays in the park, a flute or recorder. Off we go to listen but all we find are a few Andean Indians selling woolen bags and necklaces. We trace the Andean music to a bar, in the direction opposite to the park. There are pan flutes pleasantly blaring from the speakers at a bar near our house. I have never seen it open.
The protein powder shop is open and beauty salons as well. Inside there is last minute quaffing for all the big parties tonight and tomorrow. Some are open tomorrow as well, for daytime party-going. It is 7:30 p.m.
Earlier, we took Kay and the boys to the airport. Their short week finished quickly.
Neal and Susan are on the Caribbean coast of Panama near the CR border, in the island town of Bocas de Toro. Peg and I rode the ever-present bus to Monte de la Cruz. We walked about two miles uphill from where the bus made its last stop. The air was clean, a welcome change. The trees are tall, the streams narrow but deep troughs through the meadows, the occasional dog is unthreatening. A man is trying to heard his young cows through a gate. We say hello. He says his name is Simón. His cows just arrived yesterday, soon after he bought them, so they don’t know their way around yet. Simon moved here three months ago upon buying this land and the A frame house built on the steep slope. He and his wife had been living in Yucatan. It was too polluted and noisy there, and there was too much crime. They now have a great view of the meadow and can see a portion of mountains across the valley. The rest are obscured by trees. Simón invited us for a drink the next time we came by. Today his wife is gone and he has chores to do.
Our 90-day period in CR ends on the 13th of this month. You must leave the country for at least three days or pay an additional $25 in departure tax at the airport. I was loathe to get on the bus. Although the fare was only $50 round trip, the journey took twenty hours! Susan and Neal had gone to Golfito, much of which journey we would repeat on the way to Panama. They noted how slow the trip was, and how many stops it made along the way. I decided not to go. However, we discovered another company that said the trip took 15 hours since they made no stops along the way, no pickups, no drop offs, no detours, no breaks. While 15 hours was still a lot, I felt that I could endure it, especially since Peg was going to go anyway. She would be alone since Susan and Neal were going to wait a few days. Friend David from Dallas called to say he would meet us in Panama. The timing dictated their decision.
We bought the tickets at the bus station in San Jose. The clerk said we had to show return tickets to Costa Rica at the border. Neal and Susan bought a round trip ticket as well. They realized that this meant that they could not take the slow route back to see some small towns that interested them. So they changed their mind. The clerk reissued the tickets, fortunately.
Sketching and snuggling in the park
Over the past month I have been studying Italian daily. Often I have sketched, usually in the Parque Central de Heredia. I continue to find the old church an intriguing structure and often it is my topic. My Italian and my drawing are both getting better. Both tasks are challenging and enjoyable.
This evening there are many young people in and around the park. Couples snuggle and kiss while sitting on the park benches. Some wear light sweaters. After all, it is the cold season, although it is summer vacation. The temperature is about 60 F and a cool breeze blows. It is quiet in the park.
Buses, buses, buses
Peg and I went to bus station for the 3 p.m. departure Tomorrow is the 60th day. The office of our bus company is near the old Coca Cola Bottling plant, a common departure point for regional and international buses. The area has a bad reputation for street crime. One common scam is to soil someone with a cake or somesuch. People then rush to help you get clean. While you are distracted, others steal your luggage. There is trash strewn about the street, people sleeping on the ground.
The bus company called us at home at 11:15 to say to come to the station at 3 p.m. rather than the original 2 p.m. departure time. When we arrived at two thirty they said that the mountain pass was still closed. A truck had fallen on its side, blocking the narrow, two-lane road. A replacement bus would arrive around 3 p.m. They were not sure when we would actually depart. Susan and Neal, who had accompanied us on our journey, said goodbye and went to wander through nearby Centro Commercial.
By 3:30 there was no replacement bus, but at 3:50 the bus from Managua came in. The driver said this bus would take us to Panama. He left and then came back about twenty minutes later. We were watching as he opened the door. He fell over the trash. We concluded that they had not cleaned the bus and imagined that the toilet would be awful. We decided to go the next day. They gave us new tickets after I told him how dirty the bus was. Earlier they had said we could change them but gave no deadline. Nonetheless, now the clerk looked displeased. After all, he said, you waited so long and the bus is here.
We also thought that the road still might be blocked. The employees did not seem to know. Typical. They have no information or if they do, they do not give it out. The customer is just supposed to wait. And wait. And wait. It is hard to get even the basic information from them. There are no signs showing departure times, nor changes in times. Just the fares are posted. So you have to wait in line to talk to a clerk to learn anything, wasting time, yours and theirs. Why can’t they figure this out? If they out a chalk board up on the wall, they wouldn’t have to answer the same questions over and over gain. Once a woman came out to make an announcement. Not everyone could here her so some people got in line to ask for the information she had given out not long before. Why can’t they at least buy and install a simple PA (public announcement) system?
A possible explanation is found in Heredia. There is a school of management whose name is “The Richard Nixon School of Management.” There, among other like things, you can learn to type. They advertise that you can use one of their Smith Coronas.
The bus leaves almost on time, close to 2:00 p.m., as I mutter under my breath. Before we boarded, we selected our seats. Seats number three and four were available and we could see where there were on their monitor. It was a simple seating chart without any graphics. It looked like these seats offered a view ahead and perhaps more legroom. Well we were half right. In front of the seats were curtains. Another set sat along the top of the bus’ front window, on the side opposite to the driver. Seeing ahead was impossible. Given how scary these buses can be, perhaps it was a wise idea.
We had a window but from the aisle seat where there was the most legroom you got only a sideways view out the window. This is where I sat. It didn’t take long before I had a slight case of motion sickness. I had to make sure I looked out the window almost all the time, and at the horizon as much as possible. Before long, my neck was stiff. Soon we were in the mountains and often my view was the side of the mountain a few feet from our window. There went what little view I had. I was nonetheless able to keep from becoming ill, but barely at times, until it got dark. Then I felt better.
Later we had some beautiful views. The route to the border takes you in a southeasterly direction and after a while you are riding near the mountain peaks. At times there is valley on both sides of the road. Often the bus barely moves, since the road is so rough. Sometimes the road is paved, sometimes graveled, other times just dirt, and is most often potholed. The road is cut through the mountain. The budget for the project is always tight and the coffers raided by corrupt officials, so the cuts are often too steep for safety’s sake. We have heard about mud slides and we can see why they would occur.
The driver stopped just after we left and before we headed into the mountains to buy soft drinks for the passengers. Why couldn’t he do this before hand? He stopped again in San Isidrio. There he had a well-deserved break, eating a quick dinner with what was apparently his family. Then the next stop was Paso Canoas, the frontier. By the time we arrived there, we had been on the bus for about seven hours. The advertising for this company said that there were no stops.
At the border, you first check out of CR. There were two clerks to process our bus load of some 50 people, plus another bus load or two. Nonetheless it took less than 20 minutes for us to get through. Then we had to walk about 150 meters across the Panamanian border to Immigration. No instructions came from any employee about what to do, where to go. We learned that we had to walk across the border from our fellow passengers. However, if you wish, you can wait for the bus and it will take you across. But if we all did that, getting through would take much longer. Everyone would have to wait to do so until the last passenger had passed through CR customs. This way some are passing though Panamanian customs while others deal with CR.
We got our visas for $10 from the Panamanian embassy before we left. Thus we had no paperwork at the border last night except the forms the bus people gave us in which no border guards had any interest. We entered Panama without incident. I watched with incredulity as the clerk turned to watch the soccer game from time to time even as the line grew in size. The border process, for both CR and Panama, took about an hour.
The bus plowed through the countryside in the darkness, sometimes traveling at highway speeds. We slept from time to time, I much more than I would have on a plane. At around 6:30 a.m. we neared Panama City. Our first treat was the mighty bridge spanning the channel leading to and from the Canal. It is a magnificent suspension bridge, high off the water, allowing views far inland. We could not see any locks or make out the canal. After a little morning rush hour traffic, we got off in front of the Hotel Internacional. Two years and sixteen hours had elapsed.
The Hotel is at one end of the large pedestrian zone in downtown Panama City. The area we were heading to was in the opposite direction so we had to wait to see what the pedestrian zone had to offer. We traipsed groggily up Avenida Central. Soon the street became lined with shacks housing small vendors of almost anything you could imagine: snacks, coffee, newspapers, tee shirts and on and on. Many of these shacks are quite shabby. The area abounds with litter. We looked in two cafeterias and quickly passed on both. In one the food looked old and the other there were no windows to shield out the noise, dirt and pollution of the busy thoroughfare. We found a quiet and more acceptable looking place not long after we got off Avenida Central.
U.S. influence became obvious after we sat. The breakfast menu was much like those you would find in the U.S.: pancakes, bacon, eggs. The coffee is much better than most anywhere in our own country, however. Two cappuccinos and four pancakes later, we were ready to move on. $7 for two including coffee.
We found the hotel we were looking for but it was full. The book says that this place rents by the hour as well as by the night. The Panamanians have a widespread extra-marital practice that keeps attractive places like this busy. A young woman at the front desk sat obscured behind a thick, smoky plate glass window. Another hotel around the corner, at $33, had a huge bed. We liked it but we thought we could get a place as nice for less. We found what we were looking for nearby at the Hotel California. $20, small room, hot shower and a hose connected to a faucet right above the toilet. We never found out what that hose was for, but guessed that it was a substitute for a bidet. They had television with six or more English language stations (cable or satellite, the latter I think).
We rested until noon after our two-mile hike. Lunch was at a place we saw on our way to the hotel, near the bay and the U.S. Consulate. Chicken, fish beef or pork plus salad and rice/beans for about $2.50, including the extra piece of chicken I ordered. No beer or wine. Then we took a long walk along the stinky bay, skirting the “Miracle Mile.” The Miracle Mile is the sky-scraper filled downtown area of Panamá City. The we found the Sanctuario Nacional, a large, attractive but unspectacular church.
We passed through areas that looked like many upscale neighborhoods in the U.S. They reminded me mostly of Houston. There were many high-rises near single family residential areas, closely followed by strip shopping malls. The temperature was around 90F, 32C, pleasant but very bright.
El Pueblito was next, after another short rest. We took a taxi. They are very inexpensive here. Pueblito is a museum village. It is divided in two parts. The older displays buildings of a pueblo colonial style, I think that’s what they should be or are called. The new is composed of tall huts with thatched roofs and walls of sugar canes. Inside, Indians sell artwork and clothing, some very well made and attractive.e. We just missed dinner in one of the tents. On the parking lot dancers rehearsed, accompanied by pan flutes.
At their restaurant we ordered caribbean-style curried shrimp, which was very good. $14 for two. Where we sat we overlooked the bay. In the approach to the Canal, many large ships and some pleasure craft anchor. They are awaiting admission into the Canal.
The streets in Panama City are heavily trafficked. The vehicles are much newer than they are in CR. A cab we rode in had air conditioning and an automatic transmission, neither of which I have seen in CR. The city buses are another matter. They are attractively and complexly painted old school buses. They have added one or two tail pipes that emerge from the rear and then go straight up. The diesel fumes are far less noxious than in CR because of this piping, which routes the smoke away from the pedestrian. The buses are quite loud, however. One bus had an advertisement for a muffler shop painted right next to the pipes. From the high decibel level coming from the pipes it was obvious that this bus had never visited the shop it advertised, nor had most of the others.
Friday afternoon we took a cab to Panama Viejo. There are two old parts of Panama City. This section was destroyed by Henry Morgan the Welsh pirate. He was looking for loot. The story I read said that the bishop hid the altar so Henry could not steal it. In this the bishop was successful. It was later placed in another church, as Henry destroyed its original home.
This old town is nothing but ruins, mostly brick, and a small building where artists display their various wares. After viewing the artists’ offerings, we moved on to the old palace that looks over the bay. From there we could see what was either a strangely positioned dock or a short, incomplete bridge. I asked two police officers on bicycles and one said it was a bridge. When done, airport traffic now passing through this area would avoid the slow, windy route to and from downtown. The bridge was far from complete.
One officer said that they were about to leave and advised us not to stay in the area. People doing things they shouldn’t, he said, would likely view us as easy prey. I said we would leave.
He asked, “Where are you going now?”
“To a restaurant. The one near the entrance.” I pointed toward the downtown area.
We walked then through the main part of old Panama. It may have been here that I read about Henry Morgan, for we stood in front of the old church. Then we walked toward the restaurant through more ruins. About a quarter mile away, the police were waiting.
“It looks like we have armed escorts,” I said. We walked past the old brick structures and indeed they then bicycled slowly beside us as we made our way on the side of the road.
One spoke to me as we walked. He wanted to know where we were from. I told him Texas. He had lived somewhere in Texas and said good things about it. I can’t remember what else he wanted to know or what else he said, but we talked for about ten minutes. He was very friendly and I felt quite comfortable talking to him.
When we arrived at the restaurant, we headed for the parking lot. That is where we assumed we would find the entrance.
“The door is here,” one of them said, referring to a door we had just passed. A dog was sleeping immediately in front of the door, and it seemed unused, so we had passed it by. We entered where they told us to; after all, we were outgunned. One of them came in with us, spoke to an employee, who then helped seat us. The officer told us that we should take a cab home. Then both left as we waved and thanked them. After they left, Peg and I looked at each other in amazement.
We sat outdoors in the comfortable early evening air, next to a large tree and surrounded by vegetation. A few moments later we noticed two bird cages with two large macaws in each. Then we saw a small monkey chained to the large tree above our heads. He was quite active. The menu said that there were two large cats in cages. One was a jaguar, another a black leopard, as I recall. Peg went to see them and the other birds in cages scattered about the patio. I watched the monkey reacting to the domestic cat who eyed him casually. He found the thinnest and highest branch and watched the small feline walk away.
I asked the waitress if this area were unusually dangerous. I told her that we had never been accompanied to a restaurant by policemen ever before.
“I’ll call you a cab,” was her only response. Perhaps the policemen told her to make sure we got a cab.
“Do we have highway bandits around here?” I wondered. The area had some housing in which poor people lived. The area did not appear dangerous, and many people were walking about, and there was a great deal of traffic. We were puzzled.
We talked about this, the confining and unattractive cages, the lonely monkey on a chain and our plans while we sipped Panamanian beers. I forget the names of the beers, but I think that there are about four brands that we have seen so far, excluding the U.S. and other imports. All the Panamanian beers I tasted so far were very good.
A few hours later we asked for the bill. We paid and walked to the parking lot to get a taxi. The waitress had beat us there and was waving down cabs until she got one to stop. She watched us get in, smiled and thanked us. We drove into the sunset.
El Casco Viejo
Breakfast today at La Criolla. I had a pork stew with a red sauce, which I read was a typical breakfast here. The stew was served with corn cakes about 1/2″ thick. They are called tortillas. Since these tortillas are far different from the flat ones you get in CR and in Mexico, and not at all similar to what is called a tortilla in Spain, I was surprised to find out what they were. They were delicious. So was the stew.
As we walked along the bay I noticed that the sun, which is in the east at this time of day, appeared to be rising over the Pacific. Here the Pacific, or the bay that leads to it, is to the east. Panama runs almost east and west. The bay is crescent so at times the bay is to your east. The bulk of the Pacific is to the south. To the north is the Caribbean.
We visited the other old town in Panama City, El Casco Viejo. It is near the main, older part of the city. It is inhabited mostly by the very poor who live in long-neglected apartments in narrow streets. The President’s palace is in this section. He is probably not poor. A guard standing in the street let us walk to the palace. The president has a view of Stinky Bay and the cleanest beach in the area. The book said that the palace has a moorish courtyard but we could not see it from outside. You cannot tour it.
The French embassy, beautifully restored, is also nearby. So is the Hotel Central. We were planning to meet Susan and Neal there tomorrow, so we went in. There is no longer a cafe and the hotel has obviously seen better days. We decided not to wait inside for them to arrive.
About the Panama Canal
While we were in the neighborhood, we went into the Panama Canal Museum just across the square. All the written material is in Spanish. Tour groups have English-speaking guides. There is much of interest here even if you can’t understand Spanish, for if nothing else there are many photographs as well as old movies of actual construction work. Most notable was the footage of steam shovels filling railroad cars with dirt and stone, while pouring white smoke into the air.
The Isthmus of Panama has been used to get from ocean to ocean as long ago as 8000 B.C. Spain began settling Panama in 1510. Charles V. ordered the first survey of a proposed canal across the 50 mile-wide Isthmus. The Spanish built cobble stone trails which mules traversed laden with gold from Peru.
Many miners from the U.S. travelled via Panama to the U.S. west coast during the California Gold Rush. The miners used a train that ran from coast to coast. The train was built by U.S. interests starting in 1850. The U.S. took over the Canal construction in 1903. It was at this time that a treaty granting U.S. control of the Canal Zone was signed. The treaty followed the independence of Panama from Colombia, which was accomplished with U.S. assistance, or perhaps “manipulation and threats” is a more apt description.
The French were going to build the Canal without locks, as they had done in the Suez. The U.S. team opted for a lock system. They imported about 75,000 U.S. workers, along with most of the food and other supplies they would need. Ten years and $400 million later, the Canal was completed. The first passage was on August 15, 1914. Since then, some 700,000 vessels have made the journey. The canal is 50 miles long from deep water to deep water, but only 44 miles by air.
The locks raise and lower ships about 85 feet in total. Pacific Ocean tides have a greater range than the Caribbean side, which is why the locks were necessary in the first place. Today the average fee to use the Canal is $44,000. This must be paid in cash. The lowest toll ever paid was $.36 for a swimmer from the U..S in the 20’s, the highest about $160,000. Reservations are required. The average passage takes twenty-four hours, of which sixteen are spent waiting for permission to enter. There are three sets of locks. The Gaillard Cut goes through a mountain. Workers had to dig 300′ down, yet still this is highest point in the Canal.
Since the 1979 agreement between Panama and the U.S., the commission currently running the canal has been investing $100 million per year into improvements and maintenance. This commission is jointly run by the U.S. and Panama. It was headed by the U.S. from 1979-89. Now the chief officer is Panamanian, and almost all employees are Panamanian. The Canal will come under complete Panamanian control on January 1, 2000. Locals complain about official corruption often so I suspect that this problem with become greater, given the large income the Canal produces.
After the museum, we walked through the pedestrian zone we did not get to see when we first arrived. The zone is lined with attractive shops abundantly laden. They offer clothing, shoes, meals and the like. A man followed us into a fast food shop, begging for money. He was persistent. I began to get angry when he would not leave when I told him we did not give people money. He ignored the employee who told him to leave. Peg relented and said she would buy him some food. He said he wanted cash so he could go down the street and buy food elsewhere. Peg said either take what they have here, or I will give you nothing. He said ok, and then told the clerk what he wanted, quite presumptuously. He signaled to a friend that he had scored. I think he sold his lunch to him so he could get what he wanted, which was probably alcohol.
We waved a cab down in front of the Hotel Internacional to go to the Canal’s Miraflores locks about 8 miles away. Yesterday we asked about fares there and two cabbies both said $20. We got the one we took off the street for $8.00 round trip.
We were at the Panaline office (the bus company, which is in the Hotel Internacional) to make reservations for Monday in case the bus was crowded. A large man said foreigners may be targets for scams and the like on the bus. He said to take a cab, which would cost no more than $4 each way. The man told us that $8 was the normal fare, $20 the tourist fare. This high fare did include waiting time, however, and our arrangement did not.
At the lock there is a ten minute video. It said that they are now working at making the canal two-way the entire length. One big ship at a time can get through the Cut. We watched a ship pass through, and then the lock closed while waiting boats heading in the other direction.
The cabbie returned when he said he would. On the way back I asked him about prostitution. I had noticed open advertising in papers. He said it is legal but not on streets, only in sanctioned establishments. The women are checked regularly for diseases.
We are lunch again at LaMar cafeteria, the place near the U.S. Consulate. They were about out of goodies and empty of customers today. That evening we splurged at an Italian Rest, $30, including some very good Chilean red wine.
Back to CR
We were eating breakfast at Hotel California when Susan and Neal pulled up in a cab. They had come directly here from the bus stop. We spent a leisurely morning with them, and then took a cab to the Hotel Internacional. Our bus departed about twenty minutes late, a little before 1:00 p.m.
One again we enjoyed the view from the bridge. Now we can see the Panamanian countryside as we make fair speed on the two lane highway, passing through many small towns. They are building pedestrian overpasses in many of them. We see the small, new Mercedes minibuses used for local travel.
At the border some eight hours later, customs makes everyone remove all their luggage on the Panamanian side. We have just carry-ons so are we are through in minutes. We walked to the CR side, use the rest rooms where they could not change a 1000 colón note until they went and found change. The pay toilets are dirty and there are no towels. We are done with CR authorities in about 10 minutes.
Three hours later, they start to go through baggage and four hours later we leave. This is the slowest border crossing I have even been through. The driver allows two female passengers to sit in the aisle. They were among 10-15 people pleading for a ride to San Jose. Later they tried to sleep on the floor. The driver’s assistant is blocked from distributing soft drinks so he and the front passengers shared most of what he brought.
From the passes in CR we are treated to stunning views of the lights below and the stars above. We arrive at in San Jose at 6 a.m., which is later but better than the scheduled arrival of 3 a.m.! So we can take the bus home, rather than have to take a cab.
David arrives from Panamá
David arrived from Panama with Susan and Neal. That evening we have drinks with the Arrias’ at a cantina in nearby town. David met the older son in Dallas in connection with David’s volunteer work for the Dallas Committee on Foreign Visitors. The son’s father is an attorney. He recently retired from thirty years working for the government. He works for a private law firm.
I have heard the term ‘cantina’ but I did not know what it meant. This one, at least, is a bar that serves bocas, literally ‘mouths’ but meaning small servings of main courses. I had several delicious ceviche dishes with shrimp and fish. I also tried chicharones. I thought they were pork rinds. They had meat on them as well as plenty of fat, and thus seem quite different from what I know as pork rinds. Bocas are in concept similar to tapas in Spain, although the contents are different.
?Some of the many fruits and vegetables of CR
Besides the friendly and helpful people, beautiful flora and exotic fauna, CR offers the best fruit and vegetables I can imagine. Here are some notes I took from a book the four of us bought. It is called Sabor, Carolina Avila and Marilyn Root, apparently self-published.
Food coloring from seed of a fruit, bixa orellana, pretty little tree with very pink flowers
A group of 60 or more tropical fruits. Some varieties called a custard apple, A. reticulata. White, sweet, pineapple flavor. We have had mostly the A. muricata, soursop in English. Here it is called guanábana. Very sour but with sugar makes an excellent batido (fruit drink with milk or water, about 200 colones, $.75).
Cheap and ripe, and always fabulous! Neal made many marvelous salad dressings from the avocados he hid under his bed. He hid them well. I looked and never saw one!
The shoots die when the fruit ripens, and new shoots comes up and produce more fruit. 26 or more varieties in CR. Last night (Jan 29) I had some unripe, sliced, with the whole fish dinner I had at Banco de los Mariscos. Not sweet, a little crunchy.
You eat the fruit too! Cashews are related to poison ivy and sumac! Must be handled with care. Are not eaten out of hand, tart. Wine, syrup, vinegar.
Here mostly drink the juice, available everywhere- cut open the fruit with a machete. Coconuts are the largest seed in the world.
Fruit that varies in size and color. Cas is the name given in CR. Sort of a pink grapefruit drink taste.
Same name for lime and lemon in spanish, in Arabic “Limah.” Lemons do not exist here. Limónes were brought here by the spanish. “Limey” referring to the British comes from their use of lemon to prevent scurvy. Several varieties in CR, some with an orange flesh but it ain’t an orange, so don’t take a bite! Hugo said that the orange color means that the fruit is ripe and green mean it is not. The book says there is a limon dulce (sweet lime) that can be eaten but I have never had one.
lychee/mamón chino Litchi chinensis
Most famous of the soapberry family (Sapindaceae). Lychee nut in English, though you eat the fruit not the nut. Does n ot last but few days so is normally found dried, canned. Used in oriental cooking. I don’t think I ever tasted one.
Comes from 2 species of australian subtropical trees. Mostly for export and not used in the cooking much. Neal used it to bread a fish and it was great. Loads of calories.
Also same family as sumac and poison ivy and some people get rash from unproperly peeled or washed. Susan made a marvelous upside down cake. I have never tasted a cake so good! The fruit can be stringy.
orange Green to yellow skin, not often good here.
Year round availability, can weigh up to 20 lbs! It grows on trees. Yellow to deep orange pulp. Metallic flavor at times. Fargo says to cut slashes in the skin a day or so before you eat it. The skin has a natural tenderizer which makes the fruit taste less metallic. Or that’s the theory. I tried it and it made no difference that I could taste.
Sweet slime with seeds. Very strange texture. It has a brittle skin
Grows in clusters on palm tree. CR largest producer. Oval, size of an egg, bright orange flesh. Lots of calories (supposedly 1000 per fruit). It is boiled before eaten and is often served with mayonnaise. Tastes a little like a chestnut.
Here they are plentiful, fresh, sweet and cheap, about $.75 each.
When green, bland and starchy like a yucca. Buy them black for them to be sweet. Here they make plantano chips and sell them everywhere. They also make patacones, which are unripe plantains crisply friend and served with dinner or lunch.
Forget trying to eat it. Too sour every time I tried one.
They grow in long pods on trees. The seeds are used in tea, fruit drinks and in worcestershire sauce.
There is a wide variety of vegetables grown and consumed in CR. While CR cuisine is not the most tantalizing, it’s not due to the lack of fresh items. Here are some (their Spanish or CR name follows):
hearts of palm/palmillo
sweet pepper/chile dulce
Watermelon (makes an excellent batido)
zapote. tastes a lot like a sweet potato but you don’t have to cook it. Looks like a big brown avocado.
Turralba and Orosí
Irazu at 3432 meters is the highest active volcano in CR. Eruptions have been recorded since 1723. The last eruption occurred on March 19, 1963 when President Kennedy was visiting the country. San Jose, Cartago and most of the central valley were covered with about one cm of ash. The summit is still bare of vegetation.
On a clear day you can see both seas from summit. Today it is too cloudy to see anything so we turned our rental car toward the Orosí valley. We drove through mountainous roads, passing buses and trucks too large for these roads. Views of the valley below made us stop on several occasions. We also saw rows of lettuce on the fields immediately above our heads, seeing them from an unusual angle due to the steepness of the slopes. We came to Turralba. Turralba is on the Caribbean slope of the Cordillera Central, 650 meters above sea level. Sugar and bananas grow in the valley, coffee and other vegetables in the higher elevations. Much of Costa Rica s cheese is made here. The town’s population is 70,000. Rio Reentazón passes through this on its way to the Caribbean. It is used by rafters and kayakers. Just south of town we passed through sugar cane fields. Two oxen were hauling a wooden cart full of cane as workers cut the stalks.
We found a church in ruins a few miles off the main road to Orosí. The church was destroyed by earthquake several hundred years ago. Surprisingly the grounds are beautifully maintained. The trees full of squawking green parrots. The church came after we descended into the valley from a steep two lane road that afforded the most beautiful scenery imaginable: road side/mountainside houses, planted fields and a lake below, more mountains on the opposite side of the valley.
Orosí was named after a Huetar Indian chief alive at the time of the conquest. Eight thousand people live in the area. Orosí is one of few colonial towns to survive CR s frequent earthquakes. In Orosí, a little church still stands, built in the first half of the 18th century. A small religious art museum sits next to it. Obviously most of the goodies taken from the Indians or otherwise found in Latin and Central America were sent to Spain, much of it now at museums we visited last year. It is a shame that so much of the wealth and beauty was removed, for seeing the objects in this tiny church would have added authenticity to the exhibits.
There are hot springs nearby.
After we dropped off the car, we waited about an hour for a bus with enough room to squeeze us on. It was around 6:00 p.m. By the time we got a mile down the road, several men were hanging out the doors as this bus too was stuffed to the gills. I enjoy a good public snuggle now and again, but found no joy in this. I guess I ll have to skip a rush hour ride in Tokyo s subways, where employees stand at the train doors and push people into the trains.
We had tried to do the delightful journey to Irazu and Orosí a few days ago. The American Hotel in Heredia helped us arrange a rental, which was convenient since that meant we did not have to go to the airport to pick it up. We went the following morning only to find that the driver had arrived when he said he would, at 7 a.m. The hotel clerk said they were always late and 8:00 a.m. would be more likely. Then we found that we had to go to the rental car agency at the airport to sign the papers! Since we had paid $9.00 more for the same car, we were doubly annoyed. When we got there, I gave the clerk a copy of my passport, which is all they said I needed. He looked at it, saw the entry date of October 15. He said that if we were stopped, the police would seize the car since our U.S. driver s license was only valid for 90 days. So he suggested we not rent the car. We agreed, and had to return home without going anywhere. I called later and reserved the car we eventually took. The small Toyota cost us $58 for the day.