By Robert Ross
Notes From Costa Rica
I was lying on a pristine beach in Manuel Antonio, on the west coast of Costa Rica, kinda snoozing — minding my own business. Little did I know that I was being targeted. There, in the jungle just yards away from me, plans were being made for a hit. Suddenly I heard a voice urging me to look out!
I had been warned that Costa Rica had a crime problem, but an attack, on the beach, in public?
Before I go any further . . . let me explain how I got there in the first place.
My wife was involved in a Spanish language immersion program in San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. The plan was, she was to take a break, I would fly down and meet her, and we would spend two weeks traveling throughout the country.
San Jose lies in the center of the country. It’s a very unattractive city with a reputation for crime and prostitution. It also has a pervasive smell of diesel fuel in the air. But, it does have a major airport and is the jumping off point for travels throughout Costa Rica.
From San Jose you can take the highway to the east coast — about three hours away, or to Monteverde (the famous rain forest) — which is a bit north and west and about a four-hour drive, or to the west coast which is about a three-hour drive. We opted to begin our journey on the east coast.
The East Coast
Public transportation is readily available in Costa Rica and quite inexpensive. The buses are crowded, and not all that comfortable, but you can’t beat the price. It was about four dollars per person from the capital to our destination point on the east coast, Puerto Viejo.
Puerto Viejo is an idyllic little village, with dirt roads, cute cabinas (individual huts) which you can rent nestled in the jungle just off the beach, and a tropical forest that nudges up to the shoreline. The ocean water temperature is a luxurious 80+ degrees. And since it’s on the east coast there is a strong Caribbean influence — music, dress, and a general live and let live attitude.
In spite of this idyllic setting, we had been warned repeatedly that all was not safe. There is a drug problem, which has spawned a crime problem all along the coast. But, if you stay in town or a well-visited beach and take reasonable precautions, it’s a relatively safe environment.
We stayed in Puerto Viejo for a few days, enjoying the restaurants, shops, tropical scenery and swimming in the warm Atlantic.
In beautiful settings such as Puerto Viejo, one can be lulled into a carefree state of mind. But be forewarned, the day we left, it had been reported that two American women had been killed in the area that evening. Apparently the Americans were partying, making a beer run late at night to a nearby village — a village which was known for crime and drug use.
From Puerto Viejo, we hopped a bus back to San Jose, spent the night, and headed off to Monteverde the following morning — Costa Rica’s famous rain forest.
The first couple of hours of our bus journey was uneventful, until we left the main highway, and began our ascent up to the village of Monteverde. This road is perhaps one of the worst in Costa Rica. It was two hours of dust, dirt, rocks and potholes. This was one of many contradictions that I would come to associate with Costa Rica. Here we were, heading for a destination point that was on the minds of people worldwide. The rain forest, where scientist and school kids from around the globe came to study and marvel at its beauties, and yet the road leading there was not maintained and at points, quite dangerous.
Monteverde was “discovered” by a group of Quakers who, because of their nonviolent beliefs, left the U.S. to avoid military service during the Korean war. By chance they ended up in the mountainous region which today is known for its pristine beauty and abundant wildlife. As a result of the Quakers settling this area, Costa Rica was put on the map so to speak and has become the destination point for eco-travelers worldwide who come to marvel at the countries unspoiled natural environment.
We arrived in Monteverde tired. We checked into a hotel which was owned by one of the original Quaker families that settled the area. After a brief rest, it was time to eat.
We went to a “soda” for dinner. Throughout Costa Rican towns, villages and in the countryside, you will find open air restaurants called sodas. With names like Soda Monteverde or Soda Manuel Antonio, they dot the landscape. The sodas are, by in large, clean and well kept, with fresh cooked food being served at all hours of the day.
In Soda Monteverde, we ordered the Plato del dia which included gallo pinto (rice and beans cooked together). In fact, it’s almost impossible not to find gallo pinto on a menu in Costa Rica. It is the country’s national dish.
Don’t expect fancy cuisine in Costa Rica. It’s basic. Breakfast might be gallo pinto and eggs; lunch, gallo pinto and chicken; and dinner might be gallo pinto and meat.
There are many attractions in Monteverde, from bird watching, to hikes in the cloud forest, all of which have a fee attached. Along with Costa Rica’s chief export of bananas and coffee, the government relies on eco-tourism to bolster the economy. Monteverde is a beautiful area and well worth the visit
The West Coast
From Monteverde we hopped a bus, then a ferry, then a bus to Montezuma — a small village on the west coast of Costa Rica.
Along the dirt road on which the bus traveled, we passed a couple of “gated communities” for foreigners with amenities like golf courses and tennis courts. This was in stark contrast to the dirt villages that were only meters away. The Costa Rican government encourages, not only foreign companies and investments, but also retirees to live in Costa Rica.
After spending a few days in Montezuma, again enjoying the beautiful beaches, tropical jungles, restaurants and shops, we back tracked (bus/ferry/bus) to Manuel Antonio — which is a mecca for American surfers.
Manuel Antonio is seven kilometers south of Quepos, the economic hub for the area. According to an expatriate we met in Quepos, the town attracts a lot of Americans who are, shall we say, on the run, from various problems in the states.
The road from Quepos to Manuel Antonio winds along a jungle coastline with hotels and restaurants nestled barely out of sight every few hundred yards.
Expect to see a lot of Americans and Europeans in the area. The beaches, as usual, are magnificent and the jungle and wildlife abundant.
After a few days in Manuel Antonio it was time to head back to San Jose for my flight back to the states.
Oh, before I forget. So here I was lying on absolutely magnificent white sands beach in Manuel Antonio, right at the edge of the jungle, minding my own business. I’m startled out of my snooze by “Look out!” I turned quickly, soon realizing that I was not the target of the attack, it was my backpack, lying next to me, that was to be the trophy. I grabbed it quickly and made a shoo sound. Those pesky white-faced monkeys have learned to hit and run, often finding good eats in the bags they grab. I was relieved. My bag contained my passport, airline tickets and money.
Costa Rica is well worth a visit, with something for everyone. But like all foreign travel, do your homework and be prudent — you’ll love it!
Robert Ross can be reached by e-mail at: SanDiegoRoss@Yahoo.com
(c) Copyright 2000 by Robert Ross, all rights reserved
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