Costa Rica – La Pura Vida

Costa Rica When Columbus first sighted this country’s idyllic coastline he remarked Rich Coast (aka Costa Rica). With that the new colony was duly baptised. Costa Rica’s natural beauty extends beyond the Atlantic shores. I’ve had some great rides through its mountains, chilled on a Pacific beach for Easter, visited a coffee plantation and Lake Oriso.

Before sun down on my first day, I knew I’d love this country. A good first impression was kicked off with a fast, friendly and inexpensive border crossing. The good initial vibes continued along the best roads in Central America which routed me through some wonderful mountain ranges that eventually led me into downtown San Jose.

The capital also had a good feel about it. Clean streets, nice colonial buildings, a couple of beautifully illuminated churches and a good buzz as pedestrians and motorists alike made their way home without the pushing and honking of bigger cities. Since it was getting dark I didn’t want to spend time looking for a hotel.

On the main square I stopped at a taxi rank and asked a cab driver if he knew of a hotel nearby within my price range. Five minutes and three dollars later I checked into the Dunn Inn. A digs in the hotel zone with all the usual amenities but a bonus in having Ricks Sports Bar connected to the building. Where I watched one of the three El Classico (Barcelona versus Real Madrid) football matches that took place during my time in Costa Rica. On my first day in town I joined a bus tour of the city.

A more upscale tour on a 15 seater air-coned bus. The five hour excursion took in visits to a number of historic buildings on Plaza Cultura, Avidena Central and Museo de Gold and the new national soccer stadium amongst others places. The latter was completed in March of this year, has a capacity of 35K and cost USD105m to build. But interestingly, it was paid for by the Chinese Government. A not too subtle inducement as China curries favour in building their superpower reputation (and to buy UN resolution votes). Regardless it’s an impressive stadium.

The tour wasted almost two hours visiting a café-come-souvenir shop and an emerald factory and store. Clearly kick backs to the tour operator to ensure their inclusion on the agenda. I did feel vindicated in complaining when half the group also voiced their annoyance. Nice to stir things up. I’ve no issue visiting these trinket places for 10-15 minutes.

I should have just walked the city myself as San Jose is a compact metropole (population 400K) and everything is fairly easily to find. At least I got my bearings and as a result found a great bar called Mariscar where more than one afternoon was spent. I watched two of the El Classico matches in my newly found local.

During these matches it’s plain to see how big a following Spanish soccer has in Central America. Where on the street it appears that Barcelona has the larger fan base but that simply owes to their more noticeable stripped jerseys. However, when Madrid scores a goal the ensuing uproar shows a more balanced picture.

Mariscar’s other attributes included its windowless first floor location and great food. I watched life go by on the busy pedestrian street below while eating Chifrijo and draining a few bottles of the local brew – Imperial. In addition, one of the waiters was the absolute incarnation of Manuel, the clumsy waiter from the legendry 1970’s sitcom – Faulty Towers. A well intentioned kid in his early twenties but completely hapless.

Hilarious to watch and of course I got in on the action. Amongst other tricks, I’d ordered beer while he was delivering food. Rather than say he’d be back, he’d stop with three plates while I also enquired about the menu. Mean I know, but who hasn’t given the new kid in the office the run-a-round.

On another afternoon, I took a trip out to the huge Multiplaza mall. Although I usually prefer the city streets than the soulless and sterile rectangle blocks, you just cannot beat the convenience of having all the stores under one roof. The main redeeming feature of these structures. I did make a few purchases with which I was pleased.

A cool new Diesel T-shirt, Billabong shorts and t-shirt alle Bob Marley style and most important of all – new reading material. I had nothing to read having just finished Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. Unsurprisingly, it’s not too easy to obtain English language books in this region.

Previously, the closest I came to science fiction novels would be Stephen King’s books that I read while in my teens. However I was glad to pick up Clarke’s classic in a book exchange. Written in 1953 but set in 2050 when aliens colonise the planet he shows uncanny foresight as many events have actually happened and an insight into how aliens might view our species. Worth a read.

Fortunately the mall did have a trace of soul in having the largest bookstore I’ve come across in a mall anywhere. An encouraging fact on two counts: the Costa Ricans must read a lot and great to see that a large bookstore can survive premium rental prices (even if on the third floor). The English section was bigger than some small high street bookstores at home. I bought two books and my favourite magazine – Time.

The first opportunity this year that I’ve been able to buy the magazine. Back home I try to read it every week. In equal parts to keep up with what’s going on in the world but it’s my mag of choice for the style of writing. The contributors write with great clarity on often complex issues and with almost twenty years of reading I’m still impressed with article structure, turn of phrase and the punchy openings and sign offs.

It should be recommended reading for all high school students. In fact I bought both my godchildren subscriptions for their birthdays when they were of age (as well as money of course). Although a productive session, one visit to the mall was more than enough.

The other days in San Jose were occupied with various events. I was finally able to have my rear tyre replaced. It arrived before me but strangely the Suzuki garage doesn’t change tyres. I was referred to the nearby MP Motors. A great workshop and apparel store that’s owned by an Australian and the manager is from Switzerland. Both good guys who gave me useful tips for the trip.

On another afternoon I chilled in Plaza Cultura partly reading my Time and partly people watching. It’s immediately noticeable that women in Costa Rica are not only attractive (understatement) but also carry themselves very well. From teenage girls to old women they all dress stylishly. For example, the president who goes by her first name – Laura, is still at 53 quite the filet mignon. In fashion terms, I was reminded of the streets of Milan and Rome, yet more impressively they are able to pull it off without expensive brand names.

As for the guys, I did notice two things. Wildly impressive they can wear navy blue shirts with tie in 30+ degree heat without developing sweat patches. Clearly the hot climate thins the blood. Back home all my dark shirts are relegated to the back of the wardrobe during the summer months. Less impressively though, in this region it seems perfectly acceptable to wear white socks with casual attire. Something a good Anglo-Saxon would only do when playing sports.

On the afternoon of the final El Classico I meet David in Rick’s (the hotel sports bar). An American who retired to San Jose and who kindly offered to show me around some of the more sultry parts of the city. Why not I thought; I’ve brought many people through Amsterdam’s Red Light District too.

Interestingly and or conveniently the hotel zone is mingled with the Zona Roja. Where many strip clubs, pick up joints and “hotels” with rooms to rent for three hours can be found. At first I was surprised by the proximity of both venues but then I remembered that two of Amsterdam’s more exclusive hotels (Krasnapolsky and The Grand) are in the middle of the city’s Red Light District. After the game David quite openly told me about his life down here.

He semi retired to San Jose ten years earlier where the cost of living and quality of life was the initial draw. The clincher being the gorgeous woman. Foreign residents here really don’t use the word prostitution but many have girl-friends. The term doesn’t invoke exclusivity or permanency but there is a certain continuity. However the guys do treat their girlfriends well and they don’t always expect money but are also happy with nights out and occasional gifts. While some women are attracted to this they are also detracted to local guys.

I’ve heard it said before that Latino men act macho with the girlfriends and generally wouldn’t treat the fairer sex as well as western guys. When I though about it, by a not-too-distant an extension, there wouldn’t be much difference between how David treats his two girlfriends (who both know of each others existence), versus how a wealthily businessman or French politician might maintain a wife and mistress.

The first stop on the tour was The Sportsman’s Lodge which is a fairly new sports bar. Well lit by skylights and centred on a horse shoe bar. A nice place which would be well attended in any city. On entry it is immediately obvious that there’s more to the place than the dozen or so plasma screens that broadcast a multitude of sports.

Even at mid afternoon there was ten good looking women either looking for or already in company. We had a couple of beers before passing Little Havana and New Fantasy on our way to San Jose’s infamous pick up joint – Hotel Del Ray. What a place. I could sit here for hours and watch the dynamic taking place. This is the stuff were students of sociology could write an honours thesis. Even Gatsby would be amazed.

While the bar itself was fairly gaudy, its dark brown wooden panelling gave it a Lodge like appearance. Which was supported by the numerous photos of fisherman holding their prized catch. However the male patrons here had a different catch of the day in mind.

Despite the number of customers a petit barmaid easily maintained the bar and with the bark of Rottweiler she kept all in check. The ladies were of mixed age, size and endowments but all nice to gorgeous. Not the heart breaking junkie prostitutes one might see curb crawling in cities around the world.

Their stories were worth listening too. All friendly, well mannered with reasonable to good English. They plied the old trade to pay the bills, improve their standard of living and even make a generational change for the their families. One lady told me she worked here to send her two kids to a good school.

After a while Angelina introduced herself. Admittedly I was flattered as she was smoking. Unusually, she was not from Colombia but was Costa Rican. She worked in Del Ray to put herself through university as she was studying animal science. And no, I did not make this up. I hoped this was true and wasn’t just a yarn. However the cynic in me thought she might be pursing a bachelor of a different kind. Regardless she had a good heart and a nice smile.

I bought her a couple of drinks while we chatted. I noticed that all the girls seemed to drink cocktails. Perhaps the hard liquor gets them through the day or an instruction to boast the bar takings. A large bill could easily be accumulated before even a hand on the knee was received. It was obvious some guys were only too happy to buy unlimited drinks just to be in such esteemed company.

In fact, the male customers were an interesting mix too. From retired Americans (and a few Canadians) many of whom packed the belly of the good life and who could only dream of such company back home. To the shy and socially inept who were overwhelmed by the surrounds and were happy to let the girls take a leading role. Then a couple of young guys whose build and crew cuts gave away their military career. Good luck to them. Who knows when they’ll be dodging bullets or IEDs in a politician’s ill chosen conflict.

Then there were also the guys from whose looks and confidence you knew didn’t need to be in such a place to meet ladies. For them the allure was the brutal honestly and expediency. Not having to chase a nice girl, exchange phone numbers or Facebook details, make promises and or excuses, etc. But the surety of fun with a gorgeous woman for only USD90 which was probably cheaper in the end.

The whole place is a microcosm of wider society. Some people need cash while others need companionship for a couple hours or the therapy that comes after having good a shag. Del Rey, and the likes, offer this fulfilment even if fleetingly. And I did enjoy having my leg squeezed before leaving.

My final highlight in San Jose was my first Eggs Benedict. For a long time I’ve been keen to try it but it’s rarely to be found on a breakfast card. I guess along with kippers it’s a bit old world British and only to be found in mahogany adorned breakfast rooms. Anyway, it was awesome.

Like one third of San Jose’s residents, I left the city for Easter weekend. The exodus takes people to the beaches at Quepos and Manuel Antonio; both are right next to each other. Interestingly Easter Thursday as well as Good Friday are national holidays and all businesses including all bars and clubs close. The natives stock up on booze on Wednesday for various BBQ’s and house parties. I didn’t know about the Thursday closure so I had a pretty dry and dull couple of days. A good way to relax all the same.

Again the beaches are idyllic. For a foreigner it’s unfamiliar yet pleasant to see the rainforest meet the ocean. The trees have a nice overhang effect on the beach. On one of the dry afternoons I toured the National Reserve also called Manual Antonio, named after the man who spearheaded the campaign to preserve this treasured area. I got to see some monkeys, rare frogs and a few Toucans. The latter are much smaller than I expected. The imagines used in Guinness ads are oversized as these birds are about the size of a pint glass.

On Saturday (at 12.01 am), I had a few beers in a disco bar however I headed home early. Two days on the wagon and I suppose the holiday weekend brought everyone out so there was only elbow room inside. And that’s if you were lucky to get into a club. I haven’t seen lines that long since I was in Ibiza. Also, unlike everyone else I didn’t have the benefit of predrinks, so I couldn’t wait the hour or so for raggaeton to change to House. Guess you have to be born in the Caribbean to appreciate this musical genre. So an early night was had.

On Easter Sunday I went to a good BBQ that was hosted by the hotel next to mine. The food and music were top-drawer stuff but a pity the turnout was abysmal. I hung out with the DJ for a bit which was fun. I guess people over did it on the Saturday and they also had to return to the city as Monday was a normal working day.

While in Quepos I learned another interesting fact about Costa Rica. It is one of few countries in the Americas without an army. It was disbanded in 1948 by President José Figueres Ferrer following his election as president. Ironically prior to his election, he was the leader of the army that won the civil war. I don’t know if the general turned politician’s motive for eliminating the military was to avoid a possible future overthrow. Either way, it’s good to know that subsequent politicians did not reinstate the army. I mean, a tiny country such as Costa Rica spending hundred’s million of dollars on an army is a pointless.

In fact, Ireland could learn a lesson from Costa Rica in this regard as both countries have a similar population (circa 5m) and landmass (65K sq km). I always thought that Ireland’s Army has been a waste of taxpayers money – the 2010 spend was Euro1.4billion. I mean, as if they could defend against any meaningful invasion. But moreover, we have constitutional “neutral” status that prohibits the country from taking part in or supporting any war effort.

On more than one occasion I heard this status mentioned as a lofty pacifist ideal were my compatriots either didn’t know or forgot that it was a condition of our independence from Great Britain. An easy giveaway by the Irish negotiators at the time (1921) as the British were afraid we might side with the Germans. As if. However it was that precondition which only two decades later prevented the country from supporting the allies against Nazi Germany. The cowardly politicians of time lacked the backbone to lead a constitutional change.

This resulted in the farcical situation were more Irish fought in WW2 as soldiers in the British Army, while the Irish Army sat on the fence at home. As a further aside my Uncle Kevin was until his retirement a Sergeant Major in the Irish Guard, a proud and distinguished regiment of the British Army.

Besides being tinsel to make politicians look statelier on official occasions, the only useful thing they’ve done in recent years is to undertake a few tours as UN peacekeepers in the Lebanon and collect rubbish in Dublin when the collectors went on strike in the 1980’s. In my view, money spent on maintaining an Irish Army is as much value for money as Stevie Wonder paying for flying lessons.

Humour aside, to help plug the national deficit the Irish citizenry would be better served if the Government took an almighty axe to our constitutionally impotent army in order to minimise the effect on healthcare and education budgetry cuts. Anyway, enough digression. Back to Costa Rica.

As I left Quepos for Panama, en route, I stayed one night in a small resort (Gaia) that is owned by friends of my neighbour (Annemieke Jurgens) back in Amsterdam. A nice spot to chill out and they gave me a small bungalow at a good discount. Later that afternoon I took the staff’s advice and walked 1.5km to check out the secluded Turtle beach. Appropriately named as it figuratively turned out.

The beach is so well kept a secret that I almost missed the entrance which itself was 500m from the ocean. Another fantastic stretch of beach where the rainforest meets white stand beach. At 4.30pm I was only person there. Fortunately.

I wasn’t long walking the beach when ominous bowl rumblings sounded the emergence siren that forced desperate measures. The bungalow was too far away and the term Gorilla Dump came to mind. A phrase my good buddy Tommy let me in on when he visited earlier in the year. And something he learned while trekking in the Himalayas for three weeks. I still remember his smug grin as he said, “Dempsey, on a trip like this it’s bound to happen”.

I went into the forest, glad to be wearing shorts as it made the task both easier and safer. As I tainted the landscape with a cowpat of my own, I had to laugh at myself when the momentary sense of relief that flushed through me was replaced with the embarrassment of having to shit like an Amazon tribesman.

Luckily there were plenty of big leafed plants nearby. As I returned to the bungalow with clenched cheeks, I could not shake the image of the Japanese flag that kept coming to mind. In the weeks that followed I told couple of people about this event and a number of them asked why I didn’t go into the sea. The thought actually never crossed my mind but remarkable how different people would have dealt with the situation.

The next day, I left for Panama. But before leaving Costa Rica I was caught speeding by a traffic cop. The sneaky officer was not only hiding behind a tree but also just in front of a school zone where the limit dropped from 80km to 60km ph. My speed – 96km ph. Caught red handed and I had only just been thinking that this was a fine stretch of road to clock up a mighty amount of kilometres.

I wasn’t long into been lectured before I offered to pay the fine “on the spot”. Thankfully I had some Costa Rican colons on me, which I had intended to exchange for dollars at the border. Otherwise I would have had to use a twenty dollar bill that would have been more expensive than the local equivalent of ten dollars. Naturally I realised my own hypocrisy in dealing with this fine.

Where on the one hand I vehemently complained about corrupt officials at the Honduras border while on the other I was quick to bribe a policeman when I was indisputably in the wrong. But then I remembered something Boy George mentioned the last time we had a drink which put me at ease. He said, “Alan, ye know sometimes you can have it both ways”. “George, spoken like a true Dubliner. Next one is on me mate’’ I replied.

An hour or so later I had a pretty easy border crossing into Panama. Which was until then my favourite Central American country. Now, it’s pretty neck and neck with Costa Rica. But more of that in the next instalment of

As they say here, in Costa Rica la Pura Vida, in Costa Rica the Pure Life. An expression the locals say extends to all aspects of life. I fully agree.

Hasta Luego.

Al Dempsey
June 2011.