Sunday, January 27, 2013

Living the Pura Vida!!

I don't remember exactly when it was that Viv suggested we go to Costa Rica but it was probably at tennis as one of her tennis friends recently bought a condo on the Pacific coast as they like the deep sea fishing there.  The intent was that a group of tennis ladies go for a week of yoga while husbands would be invited for a second week to enjoy the eco-friendly tourism that the country is famous for.

Nicaragua to the North and Panama to the South, in olden times Costa Rica was miles from anywhere by land and sea, lucky for them.  These days you can fly in every day from Miami -- takes just over 2 hours!
Costa Rica means "rich coast" in Spanish and is bordered by Nicaragua to the north, Panama to the southeast, the Pacific Ocean to the west, and the Caribbean Sea to the east. Costa Rica constitutionally abolished its army permanently in 1949 and is the only Latin American country in the list of the world's 22 older democracies. Costa Rica has consistently been among the top Latin American countries in the Human Development Index (HDI), ranked 69th in the world in 2011. The country is ranked fifth in the world, and first among the Americas, in terms of the 2012 Environmental Performance Index. The New Economics Foundation also ranked Costa Rica in 2009 as the greenest country in the world.

You have to hand it to Costa Rica for achieving all this voluntarily and still remaining both independent and relatively safe.  This is probably to do with its colonial and post-colonial history when it was rather fortunately miles away from both seats of colonial government -- Guatemala to the north and Colombia to the south.  The fact that it is unbelievably mountainous mostly covered with tropical rain forest meant that the Spanish governors couldn't be bothered to go anywhere near Costa Rica and left them pretty much to their own devices.  That also meant no big property seizures that happened elsewhere in the Spanish colonial empire (which created enormous haciendas) so the few locals that were around were never thrown off their lands and consequently never enslaved.

Costa Rica's coat of arms on its first postage stamp from 1849.  There are a lot of volcanos in the country so very appropriate to have them front and centre.
Colonial history makes for fascinating reading.  The Scottish historian, Niall Ferguson, presents a nice perspective in his books Empire and more recently Civilisation particularly in how empires were created, their differences and how they ultimately fall.  Spain's was very different to Britain's -- and interestingly Portugal's too proving its not a lot to do with Latins versus Anglo Saxons or for that matter religion.  Their primary focus was exploit and strip bare and this they did with gusto using the local natives as forced labour.  The fruit of their work (gold, silver, etc) was sent back home to Spain who from the early 1500's were broke (Ferguson suggests Spain's debt service cost in 1500 was nearly 100% of revenues, a function of not taxing the nobility who controlled most of the land and wealth of the country) and needed it to simply keep going.  As Costa Rica was miles away from anywhere and covered with both mountains and impassable forests, they were simply ignored.

When the Spaniards upped and left after their final defeat in Mexico in 1821, the provinces declared independence (15th September is still celebrated as "Independence Day") and went into the new First Mexican Empire which lasted all of 2 years then morphing into the Federal Republic of Central America which lasted only a few years more.  The collapse of both led to civil wars a-plenty and wars between neighbors but Costa Rica's mountains and isolation again worked in its favor as nothing much happened until 1838 when they had had enough and simply declared independence in their own right.

After this there were a couple of military dictators and in the 1940's a civil war that resulted in 2,000 deaths after which the winner (Jose Figueres Ferrer) banned the army and declared free and fair elections.  There's not many examples in history of that!  Little wonder Figueres is considered a national hero.

Being independent was one thing, how to pay for stuff was another.  Coffee was the first answer being planted in the early 19th century for export to Europe.  However the good areas for growing were on the Pacific side so they hired an American to build a railway and sea port on the Caribbean side (Limon) giving him large tracts of land that he promptly turned over to agriculture which laid the foundations for the country's magnificent fruit and veg trade.  Bananas soon overtook coffee and having decided to remain eco-friendly, tourism kicked in too.  Its a stretch to say that Costa Rica is a wealthy nation these days but more recently they've encouraged bio-tech, IT and medical tourism into the country (Intel has a large plant outside San Jose) which probably wouldn't have come had it not been a peaceful country in the first place.

This said, driving through the countryside out to the Pacific Coast (we were staying at Los Suenos Resort near the surf town Jaca) it looked like any other 3rd world country, lacking infrastructure of most kinds.  However as we discovered the people were very friendly as a whole and tried very hard to be helpful ... and speak English, which was just as well as our touring party were the usual monolingual twits, as a friend of mine calls us (he speaks 5 languages).

The resort was very comfortable in the North American style, around a golf course and marina, and we discovered that the ladies had found a great driver (Jimmy and his brother, Juan Carlos) who were official tour guides, took annual tests for knowledge, personality and friendliness (!) and spoke great English, and had booked a rain forest tour followed by crocodile safari the following day.

Los Suenos in the early morning. Beach to the far right, mountains and forest everywhere else.

The Carara National Park is on the coast road north of Los Suenos, about 15 minutes away.  A work colleague of mine had told me that she'd been on a 3-week bird watching trip in Costa Rica and described the range of different birds around.  Certainly as we walked into the forest there seemed plenty of them around as was my very first bird watching party.

It would be fairly easy to poke fun at this group as the first we knew of them was a very loud "Shhhhh!" from several earnest looking, khaki clad individuals, mostly middle aged, all carrying powerful looking binoculars and cameras with huge lenses.  Jimmy told us that any birds around would be spooked by any loud noises so we should try and keep quiet.  Given the spot where the group had stopped was on the main pathway and the 'Shhhhh' could likely have been heard a mile away, I was skeptical.  However, they had spotted a group of brightly colored macaws (which I pointed out were making more noise than we were) so we were able to enjoy the fruits of what they had spotted.

Personally speaking, I preferred the plant life which was wonderful.  The colors of many of the plants were wonderful to behold and reminded me of another of the benefits of imperialism -- flora and fauna.  We tend to forget that 500 years ago Northern European gardens were largely brown and green, the only color coming from the odd wild flower in spring time.  Virtually every plant we know and love today comes from the colonies, someone's colonies that is.  Hydrangea for example grow wild to huge size in Costa Rican rain forests.  They did not get imported from Chipping Sudbury!  

Jimmy pointed out a bird he said was native to Costa Rica that was called after its odd cry -- coincidentally none other than our friend the kiskadee which is today endemic in Bermuda after being introduced to combat the mosquitos.

We ran into a family of white faced monkeys busily gorging themselves on bananas which were starting to fruit.  Rather than being afraid of humans, they seemed curious in the extreme and followed us quite a way down the path cheerfully swinging around, making a heck of a racket and in short doing the full Tarzan swinging from tree to tree.

Next stop was a boat trip along the River Tarcoles to check out the crocodiles.  The river is a little further north of the Camara National Park and runs from the coast into San Jose.  The boats are the same sort of river boat you see on other Latin American rivers holding around 30 people and was totally English speaking.  To get there we drove through Jimmy's home town of Orotina where every other person called out and waved -- apparently he's a bigwig there.  (He gave us his email address for future reference, just in case).

The crocodiles we saw were pretty tired out seeing as its their breeding season so they spend all night eating and mating making them very weary during the day. The last thing they want is for a guide boat, actually quite a few guide boats if you add them all up during the course of the day, to pull up and the driver to hop out and start pulling him around trying to force raw chicken into his mouth for the tourists to take pictures.  However the guide persevered and the croc finally did comply but it took quite a while so we never did reach the famous Crocodile Bridge.

What we didn't get to see at Crocodile Bridge!

They do look like logs in the water too.

The river itself is what the guide called a 'transition' river.  North of the briny Tarcoles is desert type conditions.  South is the start of the rain forests.  So there was a bit of both, mainly it seemed migratory birds.  In fact there were more birds of all kinds on the busy and noisy river than we saw in the protected rain forest.

Jimmy had negotiated a 'special' lunch for us at the restaurant next to the boat trip stop.  We'd been looking for 'comida tipica' so this was great.  Pork is a big thing in Costa Rica and in particular a dish called 'chiccaron' which as I understand it is pork with crispy crackling but they didn't serve it.  Mind you what they did was just fine as was the nice cold Costa Rican beer (which incidentally is universally excellent) -- Imperial, Pilsen and Bavaria.

For us too this was a transition day with a couple of the ladies due to leave the following day so we ended up heading out to a restaurant across from the beach where local 'ceviche' (of all kinds of fish and shell fish) and 'corvina' (aka sea bass) was both fresh and plentiful.

No comments:

Post a Comment